Most agree time to help early-run Kenai kings

Although fisheries users differ on technicalities, most of them agreed that the Kenai River’s early run of king salmon needs long-term help.

The early run, which starts arriving in the Kenai River in approximately early May, has historically been one of the biggest attractions to the peninsula. The standing world record for a sport-caught king salmon, Soldotna angler Les Anderson’s 97-pound king, was hooked in May 1987. The early run fish can get big and are the first flush of salmon after the long winters.

But since approximately 2007, like many stocks of king salmon around Alaska, they’ve been on the decline, both in overall abundance and in the number of older fish. Historical runs of early run kings ranged up into the 14,000 range, according to data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In 2016, the final sonar estimate came out at 9,851 fish.

There are also significantly fewer fish in the older age classes. The average return of ocean-age-5 fish — approximately 7 years old — between 1988 and 1995 was 1,076, according to Fish and Game. Between 1996 and 2002, the average was about 330 ocean-age-5 fish, and though the average increased between 2003 and 2009, between 2010 and 2013 the average was 121 ocean-age-five salmon, according to comments Fish and Game submitted to the Board of Fisheries for its Upper Cook Inlet meeting.

Sportfishermen, conservationists and commercial fishermen alike voiced concern for the survival of the run at the Board of Fisheries at its meeting Friday.

“Everybody’s very serious about rebuilding the early run of king salmon in the Kenai River,” said Kevin Delaney, a fisheries consultant for Kenai River Sportfishing Association, during a committee discussion Friday.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, an organization representing private sport anglers, both submitted proposals targeted at providing more protection for early-run king salmon. In the last few days, both organizations and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association have been working together to craft a long-term plan for the recovery of the stock, Delaney said. KRSA’s own proposal asked for the removal of the slot limit, replacing it with a maximum size, and repealing the 55-inch provision for sealing.

The Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition proposed closing the Kenai River above a marker near the mouth of Slikok Creek to king salmon fishing in the early run, essentially creating a passthrough fishery in the lower river, similar to those on the Anchor and Ninilchik River and Deep Creek on the lower peninsula, said Dave Athons, one of the organization’s board members.

“We feel that only in extremely large surpluses should these fish be targeted, and mostly in the lower river,” he said, adding that the organization was working with KRSA and the guides’ association on an amended proposal that addressed everyone’s concerns.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service had the same idea for area closures to protect king salmon. The agency put in a proposal to close the river to king fishing from the outlet of Skilak Lake to a mile upstream of the mouth of the Killey River, about 4.5 miles. The area would encompass some of the spawning grounds for mainstem-spawning early-run kings, according to the proposal. Recent work from Fish and Game shows not many early-run fish spawn in the area, but fish that enter before July 31 are vulnerable for a long time and disproportionately high harvest could happen, Fish and Wildlife wrote in its proposal.

“There are other spawning areas for Chinook Salmon in the main-stem Kenai River upstream of the Slikok Creek closure area that may also benefit from regulations that restrict harvest,” the proposal states. “… At this time, we believe protections for these fish can be better addressed through a different mechanism than a time and area closure.”

Fish and Wildlife also submitted a proposal asking for the Board of Fisheries to extend the no-bait and slot limit restrictions upstream of Slikok Creek through July 31.

Though no one disputed the desire for improvement of the run, some disagreed about the proposed means. Steve McClure, a Kenai River guide, said not many fish are harvested in the area Fish and Wildlife proposed to close, so it wouldn’t do much good.

“Above the spawning sanctuary (at the mouth of the Killey River), there is low effort on kings there now,” he said.

Mike Crawford, also a Kenai River guide, said in committee he would prefer the Board of Fisheries not to close the river to king fishing by regulation but allow the managers to regulate it each season instead.

“The department’s acted appropriately in recent years, being very conservative,” he said. “… closing some of the river, four and a half miles here, by regulation, I think is insane when the department has the ability to take the appropriate actions.”

The board finished committee deliberations on proposals related to early-run kings Thursday morning and is scheduled to take up deliberations on the proposals on Sunday.

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

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