Concerns arise over Kenai silver salmon derby

Not everyone’s totally on board with the idea of an open silver salmon derby on the Kenai River in the fall.

The Kenai Chamber of Commerce in March announced its intention to host a derby for Kenai River silver salmon from Sept. 6-18 this year, with participants competing for cash prizes based on the size of the fish. It would be the only contest of its size on the Kenai River, though there are several limited derbies throughout the season, such as the Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s Kenai River Classic and the Take Your Kid Fishing derby for children. Similar derbies take place every year in Homer for halibut and king salmon and in Seward for silver salmon.

However, almost as soon as the contest was announced, concerns about the parameters and the health of the silver run arose.

For one, no one counts the precise number of silver salmon that return to the Kenai River each year. Biologists last did a harvest and comprehensive assessment in 2004, covering the years 1999–2004, and the harvest rate was about 47 percent, according to data submitted to the Board of Fisheries for its 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting. Usually, biologists gather data throughout the season to estimate abundance by talking to anglers, looking at guide logbook data and at commercial harvest.

Adding more anglers without enumeration data was something that made the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board’s River Use Committee uncomfortable, said committee chairman Dwight Kramer.

“We had concerns about the silver run,” he said. “The derby would be established for the year and approved and on the docket to go off, and arrangements would be made for people to have boats. Other people would be coming down here because it (is two weeks) long.”

Coho runs are highly variable from year to year. However, there has been a general trend of concern about declining coho stocks, particularly in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley. Many anglers on the Kenai River last year noted poor success when fishing for silvers most of the fall.

During the Board of Fisheries meeting, the board declined most proposals for the Kenai’s silver fishery, repeatedly citing a lack of enumeration data as a concern. The only proposal they accepted was to officially set an end date for the Kenai River coho fishery on Oct. 31, as opposed to the open-ended fall fishery that allowed anglers to also fish in November and sometimes into early December, when the water level dropped and the fish became more vulnerable.

During the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board’s meeting Thursday, Guide Advisory Committee chairman Monte Roberts brought up the concern of allocation.

“Coho are considered by the board (of Fisheries) through some of their comments and their votes to be fully allocated,” he said. “It was a suggestion — I don’t know whether it was in jest or not — of a pink salmon derby. That would be a lot more palatable.”

There’s also the matter of what’s allowed by the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation, which oversees activity on the river, designated as the Kenai River Special Management Area. The 1997 Kenai River Comprehensive Management Plan specifically addresses derbies, requiring them to be limited to those “which do not occur at the peak of a particular fishery and are not designed to attract large numbers of additional fishers to the river.”

The plan also requires that a derby be hosted by a recognized nonprofit and that the derby returns “all of the funds generated to the Kenai River for conservation or education purposes, minus a reasonable deduction for event overhead and administrative costs.”

Kenai Chamber of Commerce President and Chief Operating Officer Johna Beech said the chamber — which is registered as a 501(c)6 nonprofit, a different type than the 501(c)3 required to host the derby — is looking for a partner to host the derby and is fine-tuning details to line up with the requirements. The organizers still plan to move forward with the derby at this time, and they expected to have to change details.

Kenai and Prince William Sound Area Parks Superintendent Jack Blackwell said the decision to issue a permit to a derby is an administrative decision and won’t go out for public comment. The state and the Kenai Chamber of Commerce have been discussing the parameters on the permit prior to the Kenai Chamber submitting a formal permit application, he said.

“We’ll end up reviewing the application that’s ultimately submitted, and we’ve had discussion with the Kenai Chamber up to this point,” he said.

The organizers have also talked with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game about the effect on the fish stocks. Area Management Biologist for the Division of Sportfish Brian Marston said he didn’t endorse or object to it outright because the effect will vary based on how the derby is conducted. For instance, if the organizers do decide to stage the prizes based on the largest fish, it will likely increase catch and release mortality as more people sort fish, attempting to catch the largest one before retaining their bag limits, he said.

It’s hard to estimate exact effects of a particular decision on coho mortality, but it will likely concentrate effort on one part of the run, Marston said. It depends on how the final rules shake out, but there are ways to avoid increasing catch-and-release, such as issuing prizes on an open basis just for catching a fish rather than by overall weight, he said.

“If you really increased harvest or mortality in some particular way, we’re probably going to get up toward the end of what we’re comfortable with in terms of harvest rate,” he said.

Beech said the chamber plans to work with the agencies and wants to host the derby responsibly without negatively affecting the silver salmon fishery.

“We’re trying to do the right thing, to go through the process,” she said. “Just like with a lot of things that are new to the area, I’m sure there a lot of assumptions that are being made. We want to do the right thing.”

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

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