Sadly, all to often our Alaska Department of Fish and Game management favors opportunity at all costs. Their recent decision to open the Kenai River king salmon early run to harvest and allow harvest all the way to Skilak Lake starting July 1 are prime examples. I applaud them for not allowing bait starting July 1, but suspect that they will give in to pressure to do so very early in the late run. I would hope that they would have sense enough to keep that bait restriction above Slikok Creek throughout the season. A recent Clarion poll showed that 85 percent of the local respondents agreed that they should not have opened the early run to harvest.
Many of us, both professional and non-professional locals, believe the collapse of the early run, in the first place, was the result over-harvest directed from a faulty management plan. So returning to the same plan that caused most of the problems is ludicrous at best. Over-harvest of the early run occurred because of several factors, including excessive exploitation in the spawning and staging areas of the middle river, erroneous counting and faulty escapement reporting.
— Excessive exploitation in the spawning and staging areas: Because the early run, and in particular the early run mainstem spawners, enter the river earlier than any other Kenai River king subspecies they are available for harvest longer and particularly vulnerable when they are starting to stage for spawning. These fish are often targeted when people are hard pressed to catch fish, if the water is dirty down in the lower river, or low numbers of fish are entering the lower river.
— Erroneous counting: ADF&G readily admits that the old Bendix sonar system over counted fish. This means that in many years more liberal harvest regulations were instituted earlier than they should have been leading to possible lower than reported escapement numbers.
— Faulty escapement reporting: It should be understood that the lower than reported sonar numbers resulted in some level of less true escapement than reported but an even more significant error in the escapement value was the result of the department counting all harvest after July 1 against the late run. By incorporating this ill-fated management scheme, combined with the sonar issues, the department vastly overestimated the early run escapement numbers. Many of us suspect there were some years where we fell short of the minimum escapement required for sustainability.
Over the last five years or so U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service tributary weir data indicates significant declines in the amount of females and less larger age class fish in the early run. Their data suggests that we are down to around 25 percent females and only around 8 percent 1.4 age class fish. Historically, the 1.4 age class should make up around 40 percent of the run. Fisheries experts tell us that these types of fundamental changes in the make up of a king salmon run are usually the result of too much exploitation of larger age class fish in the run, or “selective harvest” as we know it. They also tell us that when this occurs it takes several generations, under conservative actions, to rebound from this phenomena.
So for me, I would say that Fish and Game’s current management plan for this season is careless at best and certainly has the potential for jeopardizing any gains we might be making in the numbers of fish by compounding the problems we are trying to address in protecting more females and larger fish in the run.
ADF&G needs to change their mantra from “opportunity at all costs” to “conservation with appropriate allowable opportunity.” We need to provide more protection for our king runs if we want to insure future sustainability.
Dwight Kramer of Kenai is a local Kenai area private angler and advocate for sustainable Kenai Peninsula fisheries.