Poor northern Cook Inlet king returns lead to closures

King salmon runs to the Susitna River aren’t looking good for 2018, leading to closures in both the commercial fisheries and sportfisheries of Upper Cook Inlet.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced a complete closure to king salmon retention in the sportfisheries on the Susitna River drainage, a major river in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, beginning May 1, and closures of all the directed king salmon commercial set gillnet fishery openings in the northern district of Upper Cook Inlet. The setnetters in that part of the inlet usually have four days of openings in May and June to fish specifically for king salmon returning to the northern Cook Inlet drainages.

The closures are to help send the maximum number of Deshka River king salmon into the river to spawn. Projections are for approximately 12,800 kings to return to the river, below the lower end of the sustainable escapement goal of 13,000–28,000 kings. Fish and Game’s Division Commercial Fisheries announced the closure Tuesday with an emergency order closing the directed king fishery in the northern district on May 28, June 4, June 11 and June 18.

“The outlook for all Northern Cook Inlet king salmon in 2018 is poor based on continued poor production experience drainage wide in 2017, when 12 of 14 stocks monitored, including the Deshka River, did not achieve their goals, and 0 of the 7 Stocks of Concern were documented to have achieved their goal,” the emergency order states.

The Division of Sport Fish issued a simultaneous emergency order Tuesday closing sport fishing for king salmon throughout the Susitna River drainage except on the Deshka and Yentna rivers, where catch-and-release fishing is open, from May 1 until July 13. Fishing for other species is open throughout all the management units on the Susitna River, including waters that are normally closed during the king salmon season in Unit 2, according to the emergency order.

“This management strategy is designed to provide sport fishing opportunities where possible and achieve the Susitna River king salmon escapement goals,” the order states. “(Fish and Game) staff will monitor these fisheries closely as the season progresses. Data gathered from weirs, guide logbooks, fishwheels, boat surveys, and aerial surveys will be used to gauge run strength during the 2018 season.”

King salmon fishing will remain open on the Little Susitna River, another popular sportfishery, though anglers can only retain fish on Friday, Saturday, Sunday and Monday. The closure and restriction announcements have caused turmoil in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, particularly among guides, said Matanuska-Susitna Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission Chairman Terry Nininger.

“We felt they had this information and could have made this decision sooner,” he said. “A lot of the guides up here have been booking king salmon charters and they’re having to give (clients) their deposits back, and it’s causing a lot of turmoil.”

The commission, which advises the borough government on fish and game issues, is planning to meet with Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten on Thursday to discuss the closure and why the department did not provide the information to the community sooner, Nininger said.

The commercial fishery restrictions should not impact the setnet fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet, said Commercial Fisheries Regional Management Coordinator Pat Shields. Those fisheries’ openings are based on the Kenai and Kasilof salmon run numbers, which look good enough to begin the fishery without restrictions, he said.

“The (king salmon) forecast for the Kenai River provides enough fish that we think we can get through the season without any restrictions or we may have to restrict near the end of the season,” he said.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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