Fish and Game loosens Kenai River king restrictions

  • By DJ SUMMERS
  • Saturday, July 25, 2015 10:05pm
  • News

A healthy Kenai River king salmon run is translating to more fish for everyone, while highlighting management concerns from east side setnetters.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order allowing for bait in the king salmon sport fishery on the Kenai River from the river mouth to Slikok Creek beginning 12:01 a.m., Saturday. Bait and multiple hooks are allowed on Kasilof River up to the Sterling Highway Bridge beginning the same time.

This in turn opens the commercial sockeye fishery for extended hours they need to keep an anticipated late run of Kenai River reds. Bait restoration in-river also restores the ability for dipnetters to retain one king salmon per household permit.

The king salmon fishery has been managed conservatively during this season. Sport fishers were limited to no bait for kings to open the season and setnetters were limited to no more than 36 hours of fishing time per week.

However, this season’s king run has been an improvement over the poor returns of the last three years. An in-river projection of more than 22,500 kings has been made and seems stable just before the midpoint of the run.

According to Fish and Game’s king salmon management plan, the sportfishing manager can loosen restrictions to allow bait if the in-river run projection totals 22,500 fish or more.

“In-season run projections are stronger than expected and indicate a run larger than the pre-season forecast,” reads the Fish and Game emergency order. “Through July 22, the estimated total passage of late-run king salmon at the river mile 14 sonar was 11,079 fish. In the previous two years using the ARIS sonar, 38 percent and 41 percent of the run passed the sonar site at river mile 14 through July 22. Through July 22 the projected inriver run of late-run Kenai River king salmon (which includes the projected season total inriver harvest of king salmon downstream of the sonar) is 23,500 to 31,000 fish.

“Projections of the sport harvest from July 25 through July 31 indicate an additional harvest of 1,200 to 3,500 fish with the use of bait will result in a projected end of season escapement of 20,500 to 25,600 fish.”

The escapement goal for late-run Kenai kings is 15,000 to 30,000.

Directly after the Fish and Game emergency order loosening king restrictions was issued, the commercial division sent an emergency order removing the limitation of 36 hours per week.

“This removes the restrictions we were under on the east side setnet fishery,” said Kenai River commercial biologist Pat Shields. “With the assessment, it removes the mandatory restriction of no more than 36 hours and returns us to management specified in the late run sockeye plan. We go back to fishing a Monday-Thursday 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., and up to 51 additional hours a week, Sunday to Saturday.”

Fish and Game has seen data that suggested in-river king salmon projections of 22,500 or more since early July but only now made the projection official, triggering the loosening of restrictions on commercial and in-river fishermen. Managers say the decision to wait was purely out of caution for the health of the chinook run.

Robert Begich, Fish and Game sportfish biologist for the Kenai River area, said the department was waiting to reach the historic midway point of the run before making the call to restore bait. In light of recent dismal king returns on the river, Begich said Fish and Game manages to err on the side of conservation, waiting until the midpoint of the run for the data to stabilize.

A new sonar location influences the later decision. This year, Fish and Game moved the counter from Mile 8.6 upriver to Mile 14.

Using the previous sonar counter at Mile 8.6, the historical midpoint of the Kenai River late chinook run was July 22. With the Mile 14 sonar, the midpoint for the run is July 28.

Begich said Fish and Game made the decision as early as it could given conservation concerns and the need to wait for stable numbers.

For setnetters fishing for sockeye salmon, a season’s catch hangs on getting more time in the water. Commercial fisherman Andy Hall said the projection data has been strong since the beginning of the season and that restrictions should have been lifted earlier as a result.

“The majority of the setnet fleet have not been having a great year,” said Hall, “which is frustrating when you see a lot of kings and a very strong Kasilof River sockeye run. It seemed like we sat idle for longer than necessary.”

Hall thinks the conservation of the king stocks should always trump commercial fishing time, but doesn’t see why Fish and Game would need to wait if they had established a pattern of healthy projections earlier in the season.

“I’m glad they’ve finally acknowledged the projection, which has been strong for the entire season,” said Hall. “What took them so long to lift the restriction, I don’t understand. A lot of people have no chance of making it (this season) just because they haven’t had fishing time. That’s probably the silver lining on this, the fact that the Kenai reds will come in late.”

Indeed, Kenai River sockeye have been slow to arrive this year, which has coincided with the improved early performance of the late-run kings. In some years past, sockeyes have run strong while king counts were still low, which kept setnets out of the water.

Commercial fishermen have harvested just more than 1 million fish as of July 23. As of July 23, about 487,000 have been counted by Fish and Game’s sonar toward the escapement goal of 700,000 to 1.2 million.

Shields said the test fishery and other data indicates that the run is most similar to that of 2006, when the sockeye were nine days later than average.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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