Fish and Game increases max size for early king retention

Kenai River anglers can now keep king salmon up to 46 inches long.

With more king salmon coming into the river than projected, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game increased the maximum size allowed for retention from 36 inches to 46 inches for king salmon taken between the mouth of the Kenai River and the markers at Slikok Creek. The 36 inch limit still applies to fish taken between Slikok Creek and Skilak Lake.

Under the management plan for early-run kings, Fish and Game manages for an escapement goal of between 3,900 and 6,600 large king salmon. As of Sunday, about 4,010 large kings had passed the sonar site, which doesn’t include harvest above the sonar site. Current projections are for the run to come in at about 7,870 large fish, which after harvest still would come in above 7,660 large fish, significantly above the upper end of the escapement goal, according to an emergency order issued Monday.

“During normal run timing, 51 percent of the run would have passed the river mile 14 sonar site by this date,” the emergency order states.

Upping the maximum size limit is one method of liberalization offered under the new early-run king salmon management plan, rewritten in March by the Board of Fisheries. Managers are allowed to either up the maximum size allowed for retention or to go to bait. The managers felt that rather than doing both, they would prefer to just up the maximum size for now, said Jason Pawluk, the assistant area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish in Soldotna.

Upping the maximum size from 36 inches to 46 inches dramatically increases the percentage of the run available to harvest, Pawluk said. Under the 36-inch limit, about 28 percent of the run was available to harvest. Under the 46-inch limit, about 83 percent is available to harvest, he said.

“46 inches still accomplishes our directive of … restricting the harvest of 5-ocean kings because we still have a concern for those fish given the low returns over the past 12 (or) 13 years,” he said.

Before the rewrite in March, Fish and Game managed the early run king harvest using a tool called the slot limit — restricting fish harvest over a certain size and under another size, known as the slot. However, out of concern for the decreasing average size and age of fish returning in the early run, several user groups brought forward proposals to the Board of Fisheries eliminating the slot limit and replacing it with a maximum size instead. The rewrite, ultimately a synthesis of several proposals and several days’ worth of discussions, separated the river into two segments, intended primarily to provide additiona

l conservation for the largest early-run kings.

Although anglers have been excitedly talking about the improved return of Kenai River early-run kings this year, effort has been relatively low. Pawluk said the estimated harvest with the current level of effort and catch-and-release mortality currently through June 30 under the 36-inch limit was only about 171 fish.

“It’s a lot of catch-and-release fishing, and that’s exactly what our creel has been sampling,” he said. “Due to the 36-inch size limit, not a lot of people can retain them if they wanted to.”

The early-run king salmon regulations apply until June 30, when management switches over to the late-run king salmon management plan.

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

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