Lack of coho data complicates fish board discussions

Although coho salmon populations have played an important role in many of the decisions made at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting so far, one evident detail is that there’s a lot of data missing.

For one, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game doesn’t do much inseason coho run management in Cook Inlet. There’s no escapement goal on the Kenai River, and Fish and Game has proposed to set an escapement goal for the Deshka River in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley just this year. There is an escapement goal for Little Susitna coho salmon, but runs fluctuate, and managers have only achieved the escapement goal in three years since 2009, according to online weir counts.

Coho salmon runs are highly variable and are primarily harvested by sportfishermen. They’re primarily managed for sport use as well, which leads to scuffles over allocation with commercial fishermen, who are also allowed to catch them under their Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits.

On Sunday, the board denied a number of proposals related to Kenai River coho salmon, mentioning repeatedly a lack of data as a concern. One proposal, which would have increased the bag limit for coho salmon from two to three earlier in the season, failed 1-6, but led the board to ask what Fish and Game does track with coho salmon.

Board member Robert Ruffner expressed concern about additional sport harvest on Kenai River coho, given that earlier in the meeting, the board passed proposals that could increase commercial fishing time in both the setnet fishery and the drift gillnet fishery. Although effort is most intense in August, according to Fish and Game’s estimates, there’s still little room for upping the bag limit, he said.

“We did take some actions at this board that allocated some more fish to the commercial fishery, but even had we not done that, there’s no room here to do that (significantly),” he said.

On the Kenai, the bag limit automatically increases from two to three fish after September 1, unrelated to run strength. Managers don’t assess run strength and thus can’t tell inseason how many coho run in the Kenai River. The Division of Commercial FIsheries ran an offshore test fishery near the northern line of the Central District, drawn between Boulder Point in Nikiski and the Kustatan Peninsula, which sampled coho salmon genetics in the inlet, but inriver, Fish and Game relies on creel surveys and the annual statwide harvest survey to gather abundance data.

The last significant study done on Kenai River coho harvest rates, total run strength and escapement covered 1999–2004. Based on that data, managers estimate that current total harvest is about 49 percent, said Sportfish Area Research Biologist Robert Begich in a presentation to the board on Feb. 23.

Other studies conducted in Southeast Alaska have shown that populations of coho can sustain exploitation rates up to about 61 percent, but because coho runs are so variable, Fish and Game managers like to maintain some breathing room, said Southcentral Area Management Coordinator Matt Miller to the board Saturday.

Before the board voted down the bag limit proposal, Director of the Division of Sportfish Tom Brookover said Fish and Game stayed neutral on most of the coho-related allocative proposals, but some managers are getting uncomfortable with high harvest rates and a lack of information.

“Without (Kenai coho) escapement information, we really don’t have a major piece of the puzzle that we need to answer some of these questions,” he said.

After a lengthy debate, the board passed a proposal closing coho fishing a month earlier in part of the middle Kenai River, between Bings Landing and Skilak Lake. The proposer, Kenai River Professional Guides Association, originally wanted to close the whole river after Oct. 31 to protect coho salmon when the water level begins to fall as the river ices up for the winter.

With the amended proposal, board member Sue Jeffrey said she thought it was an appropriate protection for coho, especially those in clearer, shallower side channels. Ruffner said in light of the lack of data, he thought the proposer’s intent to protect the coho was genuine.

“We’ve talked a lot about coho, how we don’t have any great enumeration, how we don’t have any great monitoring, so the proposers were really just talking about slowing that down,” he said.

In the area between Skilak Lake and the Moose River, a little downstream of Bings Landing, after Sept. 1, anglers harvest about 3,800 coho on average, Begich said. There isn’t any guide logbook data for the area, meaning that there’s no guided effort there, he said.

Given that, board member Israel Payton said he didn’t see a reason to close the area because it’s mostly unguided anglers, so it would be reducing opportunity.

“I don’t think passing this would lend to any conservation measures,” he said.

The board has been wrangling with lack of a lack of coho data around Cook Inlet in its decisions all this week. The main point of contention in a discussion over expanding fishing area for the commercial drift gillnet fleet was whether they intercepted northern-bound coho salmon, but the board didn’t have exact harvest data on what was Kenai or Susitna stocks. Fish and Game presented data from 2013–2015 characterizing genetic data for coho harvests in the commercial fishery, though the data is new and has not been used in management yet.

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

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