Cook Inlet salmon fisheries into full swing after rough 2018
Editor's note: This article has been updated to correct that the 2018 Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closed two days early.
Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries are now in full swing, with promising sockeye returns finally showing up.
East Side setnetters in the sections north of Kasilof opened for their first period July 8, and the personal-use dipnet fishery on the Kenai River opened July 10. They join the drift gillnet fleet and other Upper Cook Inlet setnetters as well as the inriver sportfishery and the Kasilof River personal-use fishery.
As of July 8, nearly 80,000 sockeye salmon had passed the sonar in the Kenai River. That’s more than double the number that had passed through on the previous date in 2018, when only 37,513 had passed, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The Kasilof River sonar has registered about 98,635 sockeye, ahead of the 81,076 counted in 2018. Both rivers saw an uptick in daily passage on July 8 compared to July 7.
Commercial fishermen throughout Upper Cook Inlet have harvested about 186,305 sockeye so far, according to ADFG. They’ve also harvested about 18,736 pink salmon, the second-largest component of their harvest so far.
The pink salmon runs fluctuate wildly on a two-year basis in most areas, peaking in even years in Upper Cook Inlet. The run would normally be small this year, but ADFG has already had to apportion the pink salmon run within the sockeye run in the Kenai River. The managers run a fishwheel near the sonar site to help apportion the run when the pinks comprise more than 5 percent of the samples during the day.
“The pinks in an odd year are usually earlier,” said Brian Marston, the commercial area management biologist for Upper Cook Inlet. “Now is exceptionally early for pinks.”
The catch hasn’t been exceptionally high so far, he said. The managers apportioned both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for about three days, but the passage on both rivers has dropped since then. Pink salmon usually peak in the area in early August.
One of the major hallmarks of this summer so far has been the heat. Southcentral Alaska has smashed heat records in Anchorage and Kenai, with temperatures soaring into the upper 80s and up to 90 degrees on the Fourth of July. Along with the atmospheric heat, and possibly contributing to it, is increased sea surface temperatures across the Gulf of Alaska and Bering Sea.
Data from the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks show that the waters around Cook Inlet are several degrees Celsius above average. While the effects of warmer ocean temperatures are unclear this summer so far, past studies have connected warmer water temperatures with changing marine organism behavior, including fish.
So far, Marston said he hasn’t heard reports of particularly abnormal sockeye behavior. The lack of wind this summer may have made it harder for fishermen to hit aggregations of salmon, so members of the fleet have reported some tough fishing.
The only direct data ADFG collects on sea surface temperature in Cook Inlet are with the Anchor Point test fishery, which takes place off the coast of Anchor Point as a way of gauging run timing coming into Cook Inlet. In the winter, ADFG collects data on the temperature of the Gulf of Alaska as a way of informing the run timing of the run the following year.
Marston said the data they gathered this winter showed that the run this year is likely to be three or four days early.
Stream temperatures are also significantly warmer than usual. The Kenai River at Soldotna, which is usually about 54 degrees Fahrenheit in July, measured at 64 degrees on July 9, according to the National Weather Service. Little Willow Creek in the Mat-Su Valley clocked in at 74 degrees.
Those warm temperatures may discourage salmon from entering the lakes. Marston said the ADFG weirs in Mat-Su Valley lakes— Chelatna, Judd and Larson lakes — just went in and no fish have passed them yet, but with nearly 80 degrees measuring in some of the lakes, sockeye may not be eager to leave the cooler streams to head into the lakes.
For all systems, ADFG is expecting about 6 million sockeye salmon to return to Upper Cook Inlet. With escapement goals totaling about 2 million, that leaves about 4 million for harvest, 3 million of which would go to the commercial fleet. The bulk of those sockeye are bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the two largest producers in the inlet, followed by the Susitna River.
The forecast, which is slightly greater than the 20-year average, was welcome news for fishermen, who endured one of their worst sockeye seasons in recent memory in 2018. The harvest, about 1.3 million salmon total, was about 61 percent fewer than the recent 10-year average.
Fishermen were out of the water for a big chunk of the season due to the poor sockeye return, and ADFG closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery two days early. The sockeye did eventually show up, but for the first time in recent memory, more than half the run showed up in the river after Aug. 1.
So far, the run timing has been right about on average. About midway through July, ADFG reevaluates the run projection and adjusts management accordingly.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].