Board of Fish extends Ninilchik king season

King salmon anglers on the Ninilchik River will get a little more time to target hatchery fish in the summer.

The Ninilchik River, which flows across the central Kenai Peninsula through the town of Ninilchik to empty into Cook Inlet, supports runs of both wild and hatchery-raised king salmon. Anglers come from all over to stand on the banks and fish for kings, sockeye salmon, silver salmon and steelhead trout. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game supplements the wild king run with hatchery fish, though the eggs for the hatchery fish are taken from Ninilchik kings.

Under the current rules, the Ninilchik River opens for king salmon fishing on three weekends in late May and early June, and is closed until July 1, when it opens for hatchery king salmon fishing. Fish and Game managers opened the hatchery season early by emergency order in June 2016, allowing anglers to start on June 18 because of the large numbers of hatchery kings in the river. When the department did a foot survey on the river on June 14, about 60 percent of the kings in the lower two miles of the river — the only section open for sportfishing — were hatchery kings, denoted by their clipped adipose fins.

A local walk-and-wade guide, Gary Sinnhuber, brought a proposal to the Board of Fisheries to extend the season by regulation about two weeks, officially beginning June 16 each year.

“This long closure in June is a lost opportunity to harvest hatchery king salmon on the Ninilchik River, when they are in prime condition, and within reach of the two mile fishing limit marker on that river,” Sinnhuber wrote in his proposal.

Fish and Game tripled its stocking goal in 2015 to help account for a larger broodstock goal, a goal in addition to the sustainable escapement goal that provides for fish for egg-takes, provide more fishing opportunity and to help buffer wild king salmon stocks during poor years, according to the department’s comments on the proposal. Fishing effort has been fairly low since 2009 — only about 200 king salmon have been harvested annually since then, said Mike Booz, the assistant area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish in Homer, during the Board of Fisheries meeting Friday in Homer. Fish and Game only recorded about 2,164 angler days of effort in 2015 as compared to 9,003 in 2005 or 16,610 in 1995, according to the Statewide Harvest Survey estimates the department submitted in its comments.

Booz said opening the season earlier would also provide better quality fish for harvest — once the fish have been in the river for awhile, the meat is not as good.

“With the run timing of these fish into the river earlier in mid-June, as these fish first start entering and waiting for spawning, they are of better quality earlier in the season than they would be in July,” he said.

There is a significant run timing difference between wild and hatchery stocks on the Ninilchik River. During the beginning of the run, in late May and early June, it’s almost entirely wild kings, and the hatchery kings return later, from mid-June to early July, Booz said.

The river will see its first return of the increased number of hatchery kings during the 2017 season, with a full complement of age classes returning in 2019, he said.

Several members questioned the risk for wild stocks and whether the hatchery run merited more opportunity, though most decided to support it. Board member Sue Jeffrey voted against extending the season, citing concern for potential mortality on wild stocks.

“At this point, we haven’t quite gotten out of the woods when it comes to rebuilding our king runs in this area in general, and it seems a little premature to be setting some more attention on this wild run,” she said.

Other members said they would support the proposal because of the additional fishing opportunity for hatchery fish on the river. The board passed it 1-6, with Jeffrey voting against.

The board denied another proposal, also by Sinnhuber, which asked that anglers be allowed to keep two fish per day greater than 20 inches long with only one wild fish, as compared to the current limit of one fish per day more than 20 inches long.

Kids will also get their own dedicated day to fish on the lower mile of the Ninilchik River after the board approved a youth fishery there.

Two proposals, both by Zack Stubbs, asked the board to create dedicated youth fisheries on the Anchor River, Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, though the proposals did not specify the days. Multiple attendees during the committee process Thursday supported the proposals, saying there was a need to encourage young people to get engaged in fishing.

However, the board found issues with the proposals as written during the deliberation process on Friday, including enforcement issues based on the age ranges and participation by parents. The proposer’s father, Jim Stubbs, submitted an amendment to address some of the concerns, which the board picked up and altered again.

Ultimately, the board decided to set the fishery on the lower mile of the Ninilchik River on the Wednesday following the second weekend after the Memorial Day opener from 6 a.m. to 9:59 p.m. for fishermen younger than 16. The age range is in line with other youth fisheries Fish and Game runs, such as the youth fishery in the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon on the Homer Spit. All the regulations that apply during the season would also apply then, Booz said.

The board passed the proposal unanimously. Jeffrey said it both establishes a youth fishery in line with the desire in the proposals and encourages more participation on the Ninilchik River. Board member Israel Payton said the final version had cut back significantly on what the proposer had asked for, but that it was a compromise. Setting it on a Wednesday would likely gear it more for locals, he said.

“There’s nothing to say that a person can’t take a day off work from Anchorage or Fairbanks and come down and participate in this,” he said. “But in my mind, youth fisheries should be kind of designed around their community and I believe a youth fishery should be a type of event set on a day when you can get other youth all with each other and enforcement and people spearheading it, it can be an event.”

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