Conserving the Kings

I can’t remember the last time I fished for Kenai River king salmon, but it was at least four years ago, and then only once that summer. I’ve resigned myself to not bothering the kings until the runs are healthy again.

This year started out looking grim from the git-go. In February, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) closed the Kenai to fishing for kings until July 1 by Emergency Order. That meant was no harvest of early-run kings, and no playing with them under catch-and-release rules. For the early run, ADF&G forecasted a total run of only 5,265 kings. If it happened, it would be the next-to-the-lowest return in the past 30 years.

According to the agency’s sonar count, the early run as of June 30 ended up at 6,190 kings, a little better than expected and within the optimal escapement goal of 5,300 – 9,000 fish.

This is the kind of fish management I like. If you’re going to err, err on the side of conservation.

ADF&G’s outlook for the late run Kenai River kings this year also was “well below average,” with a total run of only 22,115 fish, the 3rd lowest in 20 years of recording. As it turned out, the outlook was on the low side. According to ADF&G, the total run ended up being 30,383, still not a healthy run, but better than expected.

Even so, if I’d been Supreme Ruler this summer, ADF&G would’ve closed the late run to in-river fishing, as it closed the early run. Instead, harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon was allowed, with a few restrictions, right on schedule, July 1. Anglers were restricted to using only one, single-hook and no bait or scent, and were limited to fishing only about 18.5 miles of the lower river.

Despite the restrictions, anglers were out there, and catching kings. Several times, I was disappointed to hear fishing guides and an ADF&G biologist on a local radio station’s fishing report saying encouraging things about fishing for Kenai kings. Anglers went forth and harvested. By season’s end, they had killed an estimated 4,093 kings.

At the same time anglers were killing kings in the river, commercial fishermen were killing them in Cook Inlet. As of Aug. 10, the East-side setnet harvest attributable to Kenai-bound kings was 5,603.

It might sound just ducky that both sport and commercial fishermen were able to fish during July, but that’s not how I see it. The so-called “paired restrictions” — if sport fishing is restricted, then commercial fishing has to be restricted — lead to too much optimistic thinking on the parts of the managers.

Given the dismal runs of recent years, it seems to me that ADF&G should’ve been more conservative. Instead, the agency issued an EO on July 25, allowing anglers to use bait. On the same day, another EO allowed personal-use dipnetters to harvest kings, which they hadn’t been allowed to do all month. Commercial fisherman were given fishing time in August, time in which their gillnets harvested 1,640 kings. According to ADF&G, the total “exploitation rate” (the total harvest of sport, commercial and personal-use) through Aug. 10 was about 33 percent.

When I add up all this king salmon harvest, along with a guess at the number of kings that were harvested and not reported, it makes me wonder. Are we truly concerned about king salmon, or are we mainly concerned about making a living from a resource that we hope somehow turns out to be able to renew itself?

Having seen years when it was nothing to see a boat come off the Kenai River with three or four 50-pound-plus kings aboard, I know this river is a long way from having healthy runs. So, I’ll just keep on not fishing for kings, doing my small part to maybe save one or two. I only wish more people would do the same.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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