Board votes to add 100,000 sockeye to goal for Kenai River
Upper Cook Inlet fisheries managers will be trying to allow a few more sockeye salmon into the Kenai River this summer following decisions by the state Board of Fisheries on Feb. 11.
The seven-member board voted 6-1 to increase the tiered, in-river sockeye goals for the Kenai by 100,000 fish at its Upper Cook Inlet Finfish Meeting.
The change to increase the number of sockeye that make it past the Department of Fish and Game sonar located just downstream of the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna is generally in line with the department’s recommendation to slightly increase the sustainable escapement goal for Kenai sockeye but followed strong opposition from commercial fishing interests.
ADFG uses scientific data to set biological and sustainable escapement goals for salmon fisheries statewide that are then adopted by the board, while the in-river goals can be set at larger numbers to achieve objectives such as additional harvest.
The proposal to increase the in-river target ranges was submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, commonly known as KRSA.
KRSA consultant biologist Kevin Delaney said increasing the in-river Kenai sockeye goals is one of the most important actions the board can take at the two-week meeting.
At projected total run strengths of less than 2.3 million fish, the board increased the in-river goal from the current 900,000 to 1.1 million sockeye to 1 million to 1.2 million.
At runs projected from 2.3 million to 4.6 million the in-river goal increases to 1.1 million to 1.4 million.
For runs projected larger than 4.6 million, the goal increases to 1.2 million to 1.6 million fish.
The 2020 preseason Kenai sockeye late-run projection is 2.2 million fish, which is 37 percent less than the 20-year run average.
The in-river goal increases the board approved were less than what KRSA first proposed prior to the meeting. The group amended its original proposal that called for increasing the upper end of the in-river goals by 300,000 fish compared to what the board ultimately passed.
Commercial harvesters argued in part that recent low Kenai sockeye returns are a symptom of managers frequently exceeding the upper end of the escapement goal, which makes for more competition among juvenile sockeye rearing in the system and ultimately results in fewer salmon returning per spawner, or escaped, salmon.
Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association President David Martin said the group of drift boat commercial fishermen doesn’t want ADFG to continue to raise the sockeye escapement goal “to try to find the tipping point.”
Martin pointed to run and escapement data from the 1980s that he says shows lower escapement goals over time produce better runs.
“The data shows we’re down to a (spawner) replacement of almost one-to-one,” he said. “There’s reasonable opportunity to harvest the resource.”
KRSA founder Bob Penney said concerns about over-escapement of sockeye into the Kenai are overstated.
“Those salmon provide life and food to the bears, the raven, the trout and to all the rest of the critters that live on that river. If there’s more fish on the grounds, don’ worry, they won’t get wasted,” Penney testified. “Mother nature will take care of it.”
Penney, a longtime real estate developer, was a major donor to a group that backed Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s gubernatorial campaign. Dunleavy previously represented a large part of the Mat-Su region in the state Senate, an area that predominantly supports management favoring sport and personal use salmon fisheries.
Board members John Jensen of Petersburg and Israel Payton of Wasilla said the increased in-river goals don’t change the overall Kenai sockeye management — and contentious harvest allocations among user groups — much.
Board chair Reed Morisky of Fairbanks said the Kenai is one of the primary fisheries that provides opportunity for roughly 400,000 Southcentral Alaska residents and tourists to harvest salmon.
“We all know that tourism is growing in the state. That doesn’t mean the commercial fishery should be done away with, not at all,” Morisky said. “But over time circumstances and economies change.”
Board member Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River was the lone vote against the in-river goal changes. He said he is concerned about lost commercial fishing opportunity as a result of the increased in-river targets.
“My concern is the viability of this river and the carrying capacity of any river in nature whether it’s being managed by man or not,” Godfrey said.
Prior to the board increasing the in-river goal, ADFG staff recommended increasing the Kenai sockeye sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, from the current 700,000 to 1.2 million to 750,000 to 1.3 million.
Fisheries Research Coordinator Jack Erickson told the board that the new SEG range is based on more than 30 years of solid run, harvest and escapement data that indicates the river is likely to produce the maximum sustained yield of sockeye with annual late-run escapements of 770,000 to 1.7 million fish.
“We’ve seen large escapements in the past and there’s never been a year when (the sockeye run) failed to replace itself,” Erickson said. “That means that we’ve had stability.”
He acknowledged there is some uncertainty regarding sockeye productivity with large escapements and said the department took a “precautious approach” with the increase of 100,000 fish at the upper end of the SEG .
Payton said he concluded the department doesn’t really know what exactly the SEG should be after reading management and research reports but suggested the Kenai is likely more productive than once thought given new data that shows some Cook Inlet-bound sockeye are harvested in Kodiak-area commercial fisheries.
Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].