Fish and Game presents rationale on big fish king goal

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game wants to transition the Kenai River early and late king salmon run escapement goals to count big fish only.

A big fish goal would set an escapement goal for king salmon based only on fish that are at least 75 cm from mid-eye to tail fork — about 33.3 inches — for the early and late runs. Currently, the managers count all fish toward the goal, regardless of size, at the sonar at river mile 13.7.

At the first day of the Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage on Thursday, Fish and Game staff presented the rationale for the transition. For one, they say it’s easier to count specifically big kings because sockeye salmon rarely reach 33.3 inches long, while it can be hard to distinguish small king salmon from sockeye salmon on sonar images. The largest fish also tend to include most of the females. The department would prefer to manage the fishery in-season with big-king estimates, said research biologist Steve Fleischman in a presentation to the board.

“Small king abundance estimates require complex analyses of sonar and netting data, and the methods that we use for this are relatively new — we’re constantly striving to improve them,” he said. “In the long run, improvements is a good thing, but estimates that are subject to change are really poor for inseason management. They belong better in post-season research.”

The recommended big-fish goals are lower than the current escapement goal ranges. Fish and Game’s early run recommendation is 2,800–5,600, and the late-run recommendation is 13,500–27,000. According to the escapement estimates from 2016, the managers met both goals, with preliminary estimates of 6,200 big fish in the early run and approximately 14,900 big fish in the late run. The department would also rely on the sonar for data rather than on both sonar and netting data.

More Kenai River kings are coming back large in recent years, according to Fish and Game research. Northern Kenai Peninsula Area Research Biologist Robert Begich told the board in a separate presentation that a majority of both the early and late run kings that returned in 2016 were larger than 34 inches. The percentage of large fish in both runs has increased for the last three seasons, with the late run percentage roughly level between 2014 and 2015 and then jumping in 2016, Begich said.

“In 2014 and (20)15, the composition of small king salmon to large fish was 64 and 61 percent,” he said. “In 2016, the large fish composition … increased to 77 percent.”

Changing to the big-fish goal could have implications for management beyond just counting. For example, if runs continue to come in small, it could mean reduced opportunity for fishing, even if there are small fish in the river, Fleischman said. In answer to a later question from board member Sue Jeffrey, Begich said in years of low king salmon abundance, there tends to be a higher percentage of smaller fish.

In response to a question from board member Israel Payton, Fleischman said another reason they are comfortable with the big fish goal is that management won’t be affected by occasional bursts of small king salmon entering the river, which are typically young males called jacks.

“There’s no way to predict how many small fish are going to show up in any given year,” he said. “And that’s one of the reasons we feel good about going to the big fish goal.”

Board member Robert Ruffner asked if the department has concerns about risks to the tributary stocks. Recent research has shown that early run fish tend to spawn in the tributaries while late-run fish tend to spawn in the Kenai River’s main stem, and there has been concern about declines in tributary stocks, especially given high harvest rates and pressure on the Kenai River’s stocks, he said. There is some overlap between the early and late runs in the river, making it a mixed-stock fishery, he said.

“… It looks like we’ve had 15, 20 years of a (downward) trend, and I don’t know that we’re not ignoring that, just hoping that it’s not really a trend, that it’s part of a low period, and I guess that gives me concern,” Ruffner said. “I don’t hear that concern from the department.”

Southcentral Region Research Coordinator Tim McKinley responded that given the current regulations, reaching the historic levels of harvest would be difficult. Fleischman said the department does have plans to continue research on abundance and historical harvest rates on tributary versus main stem stocks.

The outlook is below average for Kenai River king salmon runs in 2017. The early run prediction is for a total early run of 6,526 large fish, less than the average of 9,300 large fish, and a total late run of 33,613 large fish, less than the average of approximately 45,489 large fish, with another possible 10,097 small kings. Both predictions for large fish are fairly similar to the 2016 large fish escapements, according to a memo from Begich to the Board of Fisheries. The managers foresee opening the season on both fisheries under existing regulations, Begich said during his presentation.

The board heard staff reports all day Thursday on escapement goal recommendations, commercial fisheries, genetic stock analysis on king salmon stocks harvested in the Northern Cook Inlet commercial set gillnet fishery, a genetic project on Kodiak sockeye seining fisheries, genetic work on Northern Cook Inlet commercial fisheries’ harvests and abundance estimates on coho and king salmon populations in the Susitna River drainage.

After the board wraps up staff presentations on Friday, public comment is scheduled to begin and will continue through Saturday. On Sunday, the board is scheduled to begin committee deliberations on the 174 proposals for Upper Cook Inlet’s fisheries.

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

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