A scenario that area management biologists were hoping to avoid is playing out between the Kenai king and Kasilof sockeye salmon fisheries this week as strong sockeye salmon runs continue to push their way into the Cook Inlet while weak king salmon runs will likely force further restrictions on fishing in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
Sportfishing anglers, personal-use fishing dipnetters and both set and drift gillnetting commercial fishers have found their means, methods and available time affected as Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers juggle competing fishing interests and conservation during the busiest time of the fishing season on the Kenai Peninsula. For the third fishing season in a row managers are calling the situation a “perfect storm” of competing salmon escapement goals.
Commercial fishers have harvested about 1 million sockeye in Upper Cook Inlet as of July 15, according to Fish and Game data, but they have also taken about 1,000 king salmon. Efforts to reduce the harvest of king salmon, while maintaining — or raising — the harvest of sockeye salmon have kept management biologists busy over the last few weeks.
“We’re spinning all the plates,” said Aaron Dupuis, assistant area management biologist in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game. Dupuis and area management biologist Pat Shields are tasked with managing the commercial fishing fleet to control sockeye escapement. Currently on the central Kenai Peninsula, that means opening the Cook Inlet to drift gillnet fishing and putting two sections of the east side setnet fishery into the water to harvest sockeye salmon bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
However, a no-bait fishing restriction on the late run of Kenai River king salmon automatically puts a 36-hour per week cap on the number of hours setnet fishers can be in the water, meaning managers must operate within the confines of that hourly restriction while trying to slow sockeye escapement on the Kasilof River.
The setnet fishery is split into two sections, commonly called the Kasilof Section and the Kenai and East Forelands sections. One is located south of and closer to the Kasilof River, the other closer to the Kenai River.
While the Kasilof section of the setnet fishery has been in the water several times since their first fishing period in late June, the Kenai section of the setnet fishery opened for the first period during the second week of July and have since been out of the water for a week.
Dupuis said keeping the Kenai section of the setnet fishery from fishing was a maneuver designed to avoid harvesting Kenai River-bound king salmon.
“We have low numbers of kings and haven’t gotten hit by a big push of Kenai River-bound sockeye,” Dupuis said. “Our plan was to fish on abundance.”
Kasilof River sockeye salmon have continued to pour into the river, despite efforts by the commercial fishing fleet to slow the escapement, more than 266,000 had passed the river’s sonar by Tuesday. Most of the models managers use to calculate the final strength of the salmon run predict that the run will surpass the upper end of the larger of the river’s two escapement goals of 390,000 fish, Dupuis said.
While the 36-hour limitation applies only to setnet fishing and managers could fish the commercial drift fishers, that solution may not work for catching Kasilof River-bound sockeye.
“The drifters aren’t very effective on Kasilof fish,” Dupuis said. “They hit them early, but by this late in the year (the fish) are very beach-oriented.”
Meanwhile, restrictions will likely increase in the Kenai River king salmon fishery, causing commercial fishing managers to put the commercial fleet in the water ahead of those restrictions to avoid potentially losing more fishing time.
“Through July 10, the cumulative passage of Kenai River late-run king salmon was 2,122 fish. Daily passage of king salmon in the Kenai River has been low since that time. If low numbers of king salmon continue to enter the Kenai River, additional restrictive inseason management actions could occur. Therefore, in order to reduce the rate of escapement of sockeye salmon into the Kenai River and to reduce the harvest of Kenai River king salmon, fishing in the area described above is warranted,” according to a Tuesday emergency order which opened Kasilof section setnetters from noon to 9 p.m.
Dupuis said it was the first time during his tenure at Fish and Game that Soldotna-area commercial managers had used the potential of restrictive actions in another fishery as a justification for fishing the commercial fleet.
The Kenai River’s two king salmon runs have struggled during the past few fishing seasons.
Just over 3,000 late-run king salmon have made it upriver through July 14 while more than 260,000 late-run sockeye have made it into the river, according to Fish and Game data.
The early run of Kenai River king salmon, which ended July 31, was originally forecasted for a 2,230 fish return, well below the escapement goal range of 5,300-9,000 fish.
While Fish and Game Sportfish Area Management Biologist Robert Begich said in January that he would consider keeping catch-and-release fishing on the early run — a practice which Fish and Game estimates causes about 8 percent of the hooked king salmon to die — managers ultimately decided to take a more conservative approach and announced in February that they would close the early run to king salmon fishing altogether.
It was the first time since 1965 that Fish and Game had announced a pre-season closure of fishing for Kenai River early run king salmon.
Ultimately, 5,311 king salmon were estimated to have passed the sonar during the early run, or 12 fish above the lower boundary of the river’s escapement goal.
Despite the higher-than-expected return of early-run king salmon, a forecast of about 19,700 late run king salmon — less than half of the average total run for over the last 27 years — caused managers to prohibit the use of bait for king salmon fishing on the Kenai River for the entirety of the late run.
No-bait fishing is the first of a series of “step down” measures managers have used in previous fishing seasons to restrict sportfishing for king salmon and reduce the potential for an angler to successfully catch one. If managers were to follow the pattern used in previous years, the next fishing restriction would be to prohibit anglers from keeping king salmon caught in the river, or catch-and-release fishing.
With about 25 percent of the late run of Kenai River king salmon in the river, biologists are estimating that 3,208 king salmon have made it up the river past the sonar. If those numbers remain steady, managers could see just over 12,000 kings make it past the sonar — well below the river’s king salmon escapement goal of 15,000-30,000 fish.
“Further restrictions are going to occur in the sport fishery,” Begich said.
Begich said those restrictions would occur within the next few days, but would not confirm what the restrictions would entail.
According to Fish and Game’s online inseason run summary, updated Tuesday, if significant improvement of the king salmon run does not occur within the next few days, the king salmon sport fishery will be restricted to catch-and-release fishing “effective late this week.”
In the east side setnet fishery, catch-and-release fishing on the Kenai River triggers a reduction to 12 hours of fishing time per week — a number commercial managers said would further complicate efforts to keep the Kasilof River from exceeding its escapement goal.
Mark Willette, fisheries biologist and research project leader in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game, estimated that users would have to harvest between 62-81 percent of the Kasilof River sockeye salmon run to keep it within its escapement goal range this season. According to Fish and Game harvest data the commercial fishermen in the inlet have harvested an average of 58 percent of the Kasilof sockeye salmon run over the last 10 years.
It’s a range of harvest that commercial managers said would be difficult to reach. Dupuis called an 81 percent harvest rate “astronomical.”
“Even at 36 hours of fishing time, we feel quite strongly that we will likely not make the escapement goal,” Shields said.
Keeping Kasilof sockeye salmon escapement within the goal range has proven difficult for managers over the past decade. Shields said it had been exceeded six times since 2004.
While going over the upper end of the escapement goal doesn’t necessarily ensure that future sockeye salmon returns will have fewer fish, Shields said, exceeding the goal increases the risk of something happening to cause the fish stock to produce lower runs.
A commercial fishing emergency order released Wednesday opens the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area.
Commercial area managers must use emergency orders to open the east side setnet fishery as it loses any regularly scheduled periods during times of low king salmon abundance under a revised management plan passed by the Board of Fisheries in February. Setnetters may only be put into the water via emergency order at this time.
The special harvest area is designed to concentrate commercial fishing on the mouth of the Kasilof River and requires that any commercial setnet fishing on the east side of the Cook Inlet take place within a two-mile area around the mouth of the river.
While it is technically possible to pack the 450 setnet permit holders in the Cook Inlet into that area — as there are no restrictions on how far apart the nets have to be, the fishery can be chaotic, Shields said in an April interview.
In addition, the drift fleet and several hundred personal-use dipnetters are also allowed to fish in the area.
It’s a relatively new tool for managers to use as a king salmon conservation method. While the special harvest area has been in place since 1986, the first time managers used it to keep setnet fishers off of Kenai River king salmon was during the 2013 fishing season.
Fishing in the special harvest area does not count toward restrictions on fishing time available to the setnet fishery according to its management plan and Shields said it would likely be used again before the end of July.
Dupuis said managers would have to judiciously use their available hours outside of the special harvest area and would likely not be fishing setnetters outside of that area again this week.
“We want to save some bullets in our chamber for when the Kenai (River) reds hit the beach,” he said.