Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion Tom Toguchi of Anchorage caught a king salmon in the Anchor River on the morning of Saturday, May 21, 2016. The river is open for king salmon fishing on May 28-30 and June 1 next week, as well as additional days in June. The limit is one king salmon 20 inches or greater per day per person, five total in possession with only two able to come from the Anchor River or the Anchor River and Deep Creek combined.

Photo by Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion Tom Toguchi of Anchorage caught a king salmon in the Anchor River on the morning of Saturday, May 21, 2016. The river is open for king salmon fishing on May 28-30 and June 1 next week, as well as additional days in June. The limit is one king salmon 20 inches or greater per day per person, five total in possession with only two able to come from the Anchor River or the Anchor River and Deep Creek combined.

Chinook salmon returns still below average

This year’s improvement in king salmon returns in many stream systems across the state may not be the end of a prolonged period of low production and decreasing size.

River systems across Alaska have seen poor returns since 2007, and while Cook Inlet, the AYK delta area and many other systems saw improved runs this year, the Copper River and most of Southeast did not, said Ed Jones, the statewide Chinook salmon research coordinator, in a presentation to the Board of Fisheries at a Wednesday worksession in Soldotna. In some stream systems in Southeast, like the Taku River, escapement performances were the worst on record. Only three of the regions 11 king salmon goals met the minimum threshold this season, he said.

This is the first time the whole state has not trended the same way, he said.

“(2016) would have the worst escapement run performance in Southeast Alaska on record,” Jones said. “…The rest of the state, the abundance seems to have gone in the right direction, but from the Copper (River) south, it wasn’t.”

Fisheries managers have been alarmed by both the decreasing numbers and decreasing

size of king salmon across the state. In the Kenai River, passage hit a low in 2012, slamming the gates down on both the sport and commercial fisheries and leading to regulations designed to allow as many king salmon through into the Kenai River as possible.

The main contributing factor to the decline of stocks seems to be exceptionally high marine mortality, Jones said. Research in the lower Yukon river has shown that outmigrating king salmon are dying in large numbers in the first three months after they migrate out to sea, he sad. Normally, Southeast sport fisheries managers could expect between three and four adult fish to return for every 100 outmigrating smolts. Currently, about half a fish is coming back for that many smolts, Jones said.

“Mother Nature’s been a big culprit here,” Jones said. “…For whatever reason, we don’t know why, these fish are dying at excessive rates.”

Inriver weirs and nets have shown that a large percentage of the king salmon returning are younger, and a large proportion of them are males. Older females, typically six years old or older, are the most fertile fish and can lay the most eggs. There’s been a burst in five-year-old fish and younger, and biologists aren’t sure of the reason why, Jones said. Some stocks are actually growing larger at age, but the trend is still younger, he said.

Marine survival is hard to track, but it plays a major role in how managers can predict the fish runs will be in the following year. This year, poor marine survival seemed to be the primary culprit for the historically poor pink salmon runs that returned to Prince William Sound, Southeast Alaska and Kodiak. Newly elected Board of Fisheries chair John Jensen asked if the same conditions affecting king salmon were affecting other Pacific salmon species.

Jones said he wasn’t sure whether the same conditions were affecting pink salmon, but that fisheries managers overforecasted pink salmon production this year and overforecasting does happen during warm water years. This year turned up the warmest water temperatures in Southeast on record, he said.

Jones said fisheries managers were forecasting another poor king salmon run in Southeast next year, and given that in all years prior to 2016 all the state’s king salmon fisheries trended along the same line, it could mean a downturn for the other systems. However, nothing is certain, he said. Surveyors this year found plentiful fall juvenile king salmon in Southeast river systems, despite poor returns, so it could bode well for the future if they survive to maturity in the ocean, he said.

One of the changes that could make a difference in king salmon monitoring would be transitioning some escapement goals in the state to record only fish greater than 36 inches long, sometimes called a “big fish goal.” Ten of Southeast Alaska’s 11 sport king salmon goals are big fish goals, allowing fisheries managers to base their achieved escapement only on the biggest fish. Most of the programs are more accurate on large fish as well, he said.

Several proposals for the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage address the question of the size of king salmon actually spawning in the river. Salmon may pass Fish and Game’s sonar at approximately river mile 13 and be counted in the escapement, but anglers fish upriver of that as well. Two similar proposals request the Board of Fisheries to close the king salmon fishery further upstream. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has proposed that fishing for king salmon be closed upstream of a marker about a mile upstream of the Killey River mouth. Another group, the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, which represents private anglers, wants to see it closed upstream of Slikok Creek at approximately river mile 19. KAFC has also proposed the size slot limit for the Kenai River king salmon be changed to a maximum limit of 42 inches long.

Ed Schmitt, the chairman of KAFC, testified to the board Tuesday that the group supported the establishment of a big fish goal on the Kenai River. The larger the king, the more eggs she carries, and an all-fish escapement goal does not account for the larger kings, he said.

“I would emphasize that we need to get many more bigger kings into the river spawning,” Schmitt said. “I think that’s the only way we’re going to get the real big kings back.”

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

 

More in News

Trees with fall colors populate the Shqui Tsatnu Creek gully as seen from Fourth Avenue on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai to use $770k in grants to remove hazard trees along Shqui Tsatnu Creek

The money will be used to mitigate hazards caused by dead and dying spruce trees over more than 100 acres of city land

Alaska state Rep. David Eastman, a Wasilla Republican, is shown seated on the House floor on April 29, 2022, in Juneau, Alaska. (AP Photo/Becky Bohrer, File)
Alaska judge keeps Oath Keepers lawmaker on November ballot

Judge Jack McKenna on Thursday ordered elections officials to delay certifying the result of that particular race

An image purportedly from the computer screen of a digital media specialist for Gov. Mike Dunleavy shows numerous files and folders of campaign advertising. A complaint filed against the governor, plus other individuals and organizations, claims administrative staff is illegally doing paid campaign work on behalf of the governor. (Screenshot from complaint filed with the Alaska Public Offices Commission)
Dunleavy faces more accusations in campaign complaint

Governor calls it “specious and unfounded.”

A recent photo of Anesha "Duffy" Murnane, missing since Oct. 17, 2019, in Homer, Alaska. (Photo provided, Homer Police Department)
A 2019 photo of Anesha “Duffy” Murnane, who went missing since Oct. 17, 2019, in Homer. (Photo provided, Homer Police Department)
Calderwood indicted for murder

Indictment charges man accused of killing Anesha “Duffy” Murnane with first-degree murder, kidnapping and sexual assault.

Triumvirate Theatre is seen on Monday, Feb. 22, 2021, in Nikiski, Alaska. The building burned in a fire on Feb. 20 of that year. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai council gives Triumvirate more time to build theater

The Kenai City Council voted last summer to conditionally donate a 2-acre parcel of city land near Daubenspeck Park and the Kenai Walmart

Leaves fall at the Kenai Senior Center on Thursday, Sept. 22, 2022, in Kenai, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Kenai Senior Center makes plans for $715,000 endowment

The money comes from the Tamara Diane Cone Testamentary Trust

Clarise Larson / Juneau Empire
On Thursday morning at what police described as an active crime scene, JPD Officer Austin Thomas and Officer Taylor Davis walk the fielded area which was blocked off by crime scene tape. Multiple tents and a police vehicle sat in the field where the tape surrounded, another police vehicle sat in a dirt parking area.
No arrests made as Juneau death investigation continues

Shortly before 4 p.m. Wednesday that a woman’s body was found

Damage from the remnants of typhoon Merbok can be seen in Golovin, Alaska, on Sept. 20, 2022. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has requested a federal disaster declaration for areas in western Alaska affected by the storm. (Photo by Jeremy Cubas/Office of the Governor)
Damage from the remnants of typhoon Merbok can be seen in Golovin, Alaska, on Sept. 20, 2022. Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy has requested a federal disaster declaration for areas in western Alaska affected by the storm. (Photo by Jeremy Cubas/Office of the Governor)
Repair work begins in some Alaska towns slammed by storm

About 21,000 people living along a 1,000-mile stretch of Alaska’s western coast were affected by the storm

Camille Broussard testifies in support of an advisory planning commission in Nikiski during a meeting of the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly on Tuesday, Sept. 20, 2022, in Soldotna, Alaska. (Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)
Assembly approves advisory planning commission for Nikiski

The commission area as petitioned and approved covers just over 3.5 million acres

Most Read