A fisher holds a reel on the Kenai River near Soldotna on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

A fisher holds a reel on the Kenai River near Soldotna on June 30, 2021. (Photo by Ashlyn O’Hara/Peninsula Clarion)

Voices of the Peninsula: King salmon closures long overdue

Returns have progressively gone downhill since the early run was closed in June 2012

By Bob Standish

The recent announcement on March 2 by Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) closing the Kenai River (as well as other areas on the Kenai Peninsula) to king salmon fishing was long overdue.

The Kenai River king salmon returns have progressively gone downhill since the early run was closed in June 2012.

I was guiding for king salmon on the Kenai River at the time of the 2012 king population collapse and closure. Although I continued guiding until recently, I never guided another trip for king salmon. I diverted my king salmon clients to other guides/trips (salt water, fly outs, etc.) that were more sustainable fisheries and not detrimental to the Kenai River kings. I was determined to do my part in helping to restore the Kenai king population to fishable numbers. I hoped other guides would follow suit and relinquish guiding for kings on the Kenai River in subsequent years; but few followed.

In subsequent years, ADF&G frequently opened and closed the Kenai River kings to sport fishing. Almost without exception, the king fishing would be opened first with the hope that the population would reach an escapement goal for that particular year.

In many years the projected escapement goals were not met and the fishing had to be closed.

Most of the time, catch and release fishing was allowed to continue and guides participating in catch and release fishing professed that they were not depleting the king fishery resource. Although few scientific studies have ever been conducted to prove this premise, I wonder how many of these large kings dragged and pulled around on the end of a fishing line for several minutes, to the point of exhaustion, ever continued to successfully spawn.

I commend ADF&G for finally taking a proactive conservation approach to the Kenai River king salmon population. This proper conservation approach should have been taken several years ago. It may now be too late to rescue those giant king genetics that once made the Kenai River world famous for sport fishing.

The issue of commercial set-netters taking certain numbers of king salmon before they enter the Kenai River to spawn must be confronted by all stakeholders (politicians, biologists, conservation organizations, set-netters) and resolved before the Kenai River king populations will again be plentiful enough to prevent frequent closures. Buying out the commercial permit holders may be the only viable resolution.

Income to local residents and businesses from sport fishing activity on the Kenai River and the Kenai Peninsula most likely far outweighs commercial set-net income. It is time to recognize and appreciate the biological and economical value of sport fishing on the world renowned Kenai River and other waters of the Kenai Peninsula.

Bob Standish is a retired Fish & Wildlife biologist/sport fishing guide.

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