Board passes sweeping change for early run kings

Early run Kenai River king salmon will now have more protection in the middle river and management will be more conservative after the Board of Fisheries unanimously approved a rewrite of the early run management plan.

It’s a paradigm shift for the fishery. Essentially, the new plan turns the Kenai River into a pass-through fishery on the lower 19 miles, and once early run kings have made their way into the middle river between Slikok Creek and Skilak Lake, they have far more protections than they have in the past. It also does away with the slot limit, a size restriction meant to protect larger fish but left some of the very largest available for harvest.

The new plan has multiple tiers based on projected escapements and separates the lower and middle river sections. In the lower river, if the run is projected to fall below the sustainable escapement goal of 2,800-5,600 big kings, the fishery is closed. If it is between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal of 3,900-6,600 salmon, the managers can close the fishery or allow catch-and-release. If it’s within or above the optimum escapement goal, managers can allow bait and retention of fish of a size the department deems appropriate.

In the middle river, restrictions are tighter and last through July 31, including the late run season. The fishery is closed if the projection is below the sustainable escapement goal; if it’s between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal, it can go to catch-and-release or remained closed; if it’s within or above the optimum escapement goal, the department can allow retention of fish up to 36 inches long, but no bait will be allowed.

“Our job as board members is to conserve and develop fisheries, and that language order is not by accident,” said board member Robert Ruffner, who led the charge on the proposal. “This work that we’re giong to undertake here is maybe some of the most critical work I’ve undertaken. The early run king salmon in my community has fallen down, and it’s fallen down seriously.”

The goal all along has been to rebuild the overall size, age class and gender ratio of the early run, which has been falling off for decades. Ruffner said some of that may be due to natural decline, but much is due to mismanagement.

The proposal was the amended and compromise-filled brainchild of three interest groups — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association. The three, which have not always seen eye-to-eye over the years on fisheries issues, worked together on a proposal redrafting many of the provisions of the early run king salmon management plan, including setting a size cap at 36 inches. They turned in a joint proposal Friday.

Tensions ran high in the breaks between board discussions Sunday, with the meeting starting nearly two and a half hours late after Fish and Game staff worked on the language for the new early run Kenai king salmon plan. Small groups met and ran anxiously through language, and “10-minute” breaks stretched out into double or triple that as board members tried to work out what the proposers wanted. When Fish and Game issued its first draft of language, it was not in line with what the groups wanted, they said in another submitted document.

They, Ruffner and Fish and Game staff spent the rest of the day rehashing the language to fit better with what they wanted. By Monday afternoon, they came together on a consolidated proposal that hit some of the high points from the individual groups’ proposals, with Ruffner championing it.

Fish and Game’s main objection was to the reduction in harvest potential. Setting the cap at 36 inches eliminated about 70 percent of the fish, said Southcentral regional management supervisor Matt Miller in answer to a question from the board. The proposed new management plan would create a primarily catch-and-release fishery and make it harder for the department to manage to its escapement goals, he said.

“This will increase the likelihood that we’ll exceed the (optimum escapement goal), which has already been set well above the upper bound of the (sustainable escapement goal),” he said.

Ruffner fired back that that was the least of the department’s worries. Preseason forecasts are for the total early run to be below average, falling within the optimum escapement goal, according to staff reports presented on the first day of the meeting Feb. 23.

“My response to that is if that’s the biggest thing you’re worried about, we have a problem,” he said. “I want you to maintain goals. … With the preseason forecast information we have right now, this is not going to be an issue.”

Though the vote was unanimous, some of the board members expressed concern during deliberations. Board members Israel Payton and Al Cain said they were concerned about extending the regulations into the last two weeks of July to apply to the late run.

“My understanding is that the department is very comfortable that the tributary spawners are not there or they are in the tributaries,” Payton said. “… If we do this, it really affects late run fishing in the middle river.”

Members of the groups who helped author the proposal said they were proud of the measure’s success and hoped it would be a path to rebuild Kenai River early run stocks for the future.

Dwight Kramer, a board member of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, said in a statement that it was the highlight of his years attending Board of Fisheries meetings.

“We at KAFC are proud to have been a part of the groups that came together here today for the good of the Kenai River early run chinook salmon,” he said. “The fish have to come first.”

Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said it was a great plan that would offer some opportunity but begin a process to rebuild the early run. Fish and Game had some hesitancies, but in the end they seemed to agree that they should give it a try to see how it works and return in three years to work out problems, he said. He also noted that it had been a transparent process with good conversation throughout.

“It’s time for a new approach,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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