Kenai River sockeye push liberalizes bag limits; commercial catches rise
SOLDOTNA — After a slow start to their season, things are looking up for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen.
Total salmon landings reached 1.4 million after the July 29 fishing period, with more than 1.1 million sockeye so far. The majority of those landings have come from the Central District drift gillnet fleet and east side setnets, with setnetters on the west side, Kalgin Island and in the Northern district bringing in about 150,000 salmon between them, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
It’s hard to say whether the forecast of 6 million sockeye across all the systems of Upper Cook Inlet will materialize yet, but it’s definitely looking better than it was a few weeks ago, when Upper Cook Inlet fishermen were lagging significantly behind even their 2018 catch by this date. Last year was one of the worst years in recent memory for sockeye harvest for fishermen across the Gulf of Alaska, Cook Inlet included.
On July 26, fisheries managers in Soldotna estimated that the Kenai River run is 2 to 4 days later than usual, but that it will likely be greater than 2.3 million. That’s on track with the preseason forecast of about 3 million.
That’s much more on time than last year, when the run turned out to be at least a week later than usual. Even a run four to five days late can significantly interrupt fishing management plans in Upper Cook Inlet, where the interlocking user groups and their management plans keep operations fairly tight.
The Kasilof River, about 12 miles to the south of the Kenai, is getting close to the upper end of its own escapement goal of 340,000 sockeye. As of July 29, 306,812 sockeye had passed on the sonar on that river. Commercial area management biologist Brian Marston said the managers will likely start opening up more hours in the Kasilof area to help control that escapement, with an eye toward not having to open the Kasilof Special Harvest Area.
“We have several steps that we’re supposed to take before that, which is to use more hours than the management plans normally allow and also to not adhere to the (mandatory closure) windows,” he said. “The SHA is a last resort. The management plans actually state that you shall do extra hours and step on the windows before you do the SHA. Although it’s a good idea, it doesn’t function to really stop the river that well.”
The SHA is a constrained terminal harvest area around the mouth of the Kasilof River, functioning as a last effort to control escapement to that river. Because of the tidal flats and constrained area, it’s relatively hard to fish. During the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting, the board members took several steps to help managers avoid having to use the SHA to control escapement, including expanding opportunities for the use of the 600-foot setnet fishery along the nearby beaches.
The Kenai River is already within its sustainable escapement goal range, and as of Monday was within the inriver goal range of 1 million to1.3 million sockeye. The sustainable escapement goal is set for spawning; the in-river goal is designed to account for sportfishing harvest. Now it’s a game of controlling escapement to not exceed the upper end of the escapement goal using the commercial and sport fisheries.
But one confounding factor is the king salmon run there. The kings are still returning to the Kenai, but only 8,615 large kings had passed the sonar as of July 29. The lower end of the escapement goal for late-run kings is 13,500. In trying to protect kings, the commercial area managers are somewhat hamstrung when trying to open setnets to harvest sockeye salmon in the Kenai River area.
After Aug. 1, the managers get more hours as the restrictions on commercial fishing hours through the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan are lifted, Marston said.
“As soon as we get out of the king plan at the end of the month, we have to still pay attention to the escapement of king salmon,” he said.
The Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery closes on July 31 at 11:59 p.m. as well. Sport anglers will keep fishing, and ADFG sport fishing managers doubled the bag and possession limits to six per day with 12 in possession for the Kenai River downstream of Skilak Lake effective Sunday. They also increased the bag limits for sockeye in the Kasilof River
Effective July 24 to six per day with 12 in possession. The personal-use dipnet fishery there will continue as well until Aug. 7.
Pink and coho salmon are starting to show up as well, though this year is set to be a relatively weak pink year, as odd-numbered years are in Upper Cook Inlet. As of July 29, commercial fishermen had landed 83,307 coho salmon across Upper Cook Inlet, and though there are no escapement goals for coho salmon south of the Deshka River, Marston said there were signs the run could be strong this year.
The Deshka River weir has counted 826 coho salmon as of July 29, ahead of last year on the same date.
The northern streams are on target for their coho runs so far, and strong numbers have been showing up at Fish and Game’s weirs since the rain began last week. The run could still turn out to be unexceptional, as coho didn’t show up strongly in the test fishery numbers, but it could also be another excellent year, he said.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].