It’s not a great summer to be a salmon fisherman in Southcentral Alaska so far.
Several major river systems are seeing paltry salmon returns. The poor numbers have led to closures and cutbacks to sport and commercial fisheries.
After a few weeks of nearly nonexistent king salmon returns to the Anchor River, Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers closed the river to sportfishing for kings for the rest of the season. Under normal conditions, it would have been open for several more weekends in June and on Wednesdays. As of Friday, only 122 kings had passed the sonar and weir on the two forks of the Anchor River, compared to 1,049 on the same date last year.
“We’re evaluating it on a daily basis,” said Carol Kerkvliet, the area management biologist for the Division of Sportfish in Homer. “We’ve looked at our run timing, which was a week late in 2009. In 2009, it was about five days later than the runs from 2009 to 2014. Using that as a benchmark, we still would not meet our escapement goal.”
It’s more than just the Anchor, though. All king fishing on the Ninilchik River and Deep Creek, two neighboring streams to the north, is also closed until July 15. That’s in part to prevent all the angling effort from the Anchor River shifting there.
Managers also decided to restrict king salmon fishing in the marine waters near the rivers. Genetic studies have shown that 10 to 25 percent of the kings caught in the area within one mile of shore between Bluff Point and the Ninilchik River are migrating back to Cook Inlet streams. The marine closures are meant to protect those kings, Kerkvliet said.
Even catch-and-release fishing for kings is prohibited in those waters. All fishing is prohibited around the mouths of the rivers and in three areas along the shore, noted in the regulations book and by Fish and Game markers on the shores. Kerkvliet said anglers should be mindful of location when fishing for kings — while they can catch kings farther out from shore than the closed area and can fish for halibut inside the closed area, they cannot fish for halibut in the closed area while possessing kings they have caught outside the closed area.
“(Anglers) can transit, but they can’t fish there,” she said. “If they’re in doubt, go farther out.”
Closures aren’t unprecedented on the Anchor River, Kerkvliet said. Even when fishery managers restricted and closed fishing on the river from 2009–2011 and 2014, when the runs were weaker, the river still fell short of the sustainable escapement goal.
The return strength isn’t necessarily connected to the strength of the run the year the fish hatched, either. The river saw strong returns in 2015, 2016 and 2017, comprised of fish coming from years from 2009–2014 when the river saw weak returns. But one pattern the Anchor River has shown is that when it looks like a weak run, it’s a weak run, Kerkvliet aid.
“We’ve never seen a weak run that materialized into a strong run or a moderate run,” she said. “I don’t know about other streams but that’s true for the Anchor (River). This may be the year that pattern changes, but we have to operate on what we already know.”
In Prince William Sound, sockeye are the problem. Copper River commercial fishermen are usually hauling in thousands of red salmon by now. This year, they’ve been on the docks often, shut down due to weak returns. As of Saturday, the area remained closed due to low sockeye numbers, under an emergency order .
By June 1 last year, the sonar at Miles Lake on the Copper River had counted 182,518 salmon. This year, only 45,884 have passed the sonar. That doesn’t necessarily indicate whether fish are present at the mouth of the river — it takes fish about a week to swim to the sonar, which is far upstream — but it’s consistent with what commercial fishermen have been saying about abundance, said Jeremy Botz, the gillnet commercial fishery manager for Fish and Game in Cordova.
“It definitely appears to be a little bit of a later run, with the environmental conditions that were in play at the start of the season,” he said. “It’s still not showing a lot of strength. We fished a couple of periods that were exceptionally low harvests. Even with good weather, with strong fleet participation, we had pretty poor harvests, even at a point when you should see numbers start picking up a little more.”
Copper River fishermen don’t usually have to worry about sockeye — there’s usually enough of the fish to conduct a normal commercial fishery , Botz said. This time last year, the issue was the king salmon, as the preseason forecast was poor enough to drive managers to restrict in-river sportfishermen and subsistence fishermen from taking kings. The run turned out to be stronger than expected and managers lifted the restrictions on in-river sporfishermen. This year, the king salmon returns seem to be relatively normal, Botz said.
Managers can restrict harvest using time and area, but they’re reaching a point where they’re short on information about what’s happening with the run, he said. Because Fish and Game’s sonar is so far upstream, it may not reflect how many fish are present at the mouth. “We’re looking at being in kind of an information poor environment if we have to keep the fishery closed,” Botz said.
It’s hard to pinpoint a cause of the poor salmon returns, especially in the ocean environment, but Botz said there was some thought that the warm ocean temperatures in the Gulf of Alaska in 2015 and 2016 may have hurt the salmon returns.
“What we’re seeing is a really low average weight,” he said.
King salmon fishermen in Southeast Alaska had to cut back before the season began, based on extremely poor forecasts and a Board of Fisheries-prescribed fishing closure, following an emergency closure in August 2017 in response to poor runs.
In the Matanuska Valley, anglers are restricted to catch-and-release only on the Deshka and Yentna rivers and prohibited from fishing for kings at all on the rest of the Susitna River drainage. King salmon fishing is allowed on Saturday, Sunday, Monday and Friday each week on the Little Susitna, but on other days they must be released immediately. The restrictions are in response to an extremely low preseason forecast for the Deshka River, which as of May 31 has only seen 27 king salmon pass the weir compared to 449 on the same date last year.
In the Kenai River, managers have not announced any king salmon fishing closures and anglers are reporting some success fishing for early-run kings, though they have to release any that are 36 inches or longer. As of June 1, 587 kings had passed the sonar, compared to 1,495 on the same date last year.