Cook Inlet salmon catches lagging, limited by Kenai king run

  • A commercial fishing vessel rides at anchor in the Kenai River near the Kenai City Dock on July 9. Commercial sockeye landings are lagging, and a poor Kenai king run is further limiting effort for setnetters as the sport fishery has been restricted to catch-and-release. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl/For the Journal)
  • An angler hooks a sockeye in the Kenai River near Soldotna Creek Park on July 12. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl/For the Journal)

Commercial salmon catches are still lagging in the Central part of the state, but the Western coasts are pulling the overall numbers up with some recordbreaking landings.

As usual, Bristol Bay leads the state in volume of sockeye harvested, on track to exceed its preseason harvest forecast. As of July 10, more than 18.5 million sockeye had been harvested, with a total run of more than 48 million. The Nushagak District alone has seen an estimated return of more than 24 million salmon, far past its preseason forecast of about 15 million, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

“Escapement in the Nushagak District has exceeded 7 million fish,” ADFG managers wrote in their weekly summary July 9. “Counts on all rivers have surpassed the top ends of the respective escapement goal ranges and a new record is set on the Nushagak River every day.”

Daily catches in the Nushagak District have come down, though, as the Naknek-Kvichak District have risen. The latter’s total run has topped 14 million sockeye, with a harvest of about 5.5 million between the Naknek, Kvichak and Alagnak rivers.

Catches are also blowing past expectations in the Alaska Peninsula. So far, more than 3 million sockeye have been harvested, more than double the recent 10-year average of 1.2 million. The pink salmon harvest is beter than average, too, with 3.3 million fish harvested so far; the chum harvest so far of 862,150 fish is also nearly double its recent 10-year average of 461,515 fish.

Kodiak is ahead of last year and better than the forecast, though its sockeye catch has been tracking with prior averages, according to ADFG. So far, about 997,000 sockeye have been landed.

In Southcentral, the Copper River district’s sockeye harvest is beginning to transition to its mid-summer pink salmon season. As of July 9, 292,696 sockeye had been harvested in the district, and ADFG estimated that 99 percent of the commercial harvest timing is complete. That harvest is about a third of the 2021 forecast of 652,000 fish.

Cook Inlet is lagging behind past years, though. So far, commercial fishermen have harvested 306,731 salmon of all species, about 96 percent of which are sockeye. The forecasted harvest is about 2.37 million, most of which would occur in the next month before the majority of the fishery closes in mid-August and effort drops off.

The run is still picking up on the Kenai. As of July 12, the sonar had counted 119,537 sockeye. In the Kasilof River, the sonar had counted 206,969 sockeye, with pinks starting to arrive in the river. ADFG estimates that the run is about 39 percent complete, with a projected final escapement of 490,000 fish, far better than the upper end of the escapement goal.

At this point, the managers are trying to control escapement into the river. Commercial area management biologist Brian Marston said the department is considering using the 600-foot fishery where setnetters can place nets within 600 feet of the mean high tide mark. The fishery is intended to be more targeted and catch sockeye bound for the Kasilof River, and provides an alternative to fishing the terminal harvest area around the mouth of the Kasilof.

So far, the runs have been slow, but it’s still early in the Kenai run. Marston said the offshore test fishery in the southern inlet showed some higher numbers than expected recently.

“The (offshore test fishery) is basically average for the last couple of days,” he said. “Our preseason estimate is not for average (run size), but the OTF is showing average.”

However, the sockeye coming in is only part of the problem. The other part is the Kenai king run, which has been anemic.

On July 12, ADFG announced that the Kenai River late-run king salmon sportfishery would go to catch and release only for the rest of the season. The department’s projections are for the late run to reach about 10,778 large fish, or significantly less than the lower end of the escapement goal, which is set at 15,000.

“The 2021 king salmon late-run to the Kenai River is significantly underperforming preseason expectations,” said Area Management Biologist Colton Lipka in an emergency order issued July 12. “It is still early in the run, but indicators so far are predicting a weak return similar to 2019 and 2020. Without further restrictions to harvest, the goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is not expected to be achieved.”

That means the commercial fishery is limited, too, as part of the “paired restrictions” model meant to conserve harvest of Kenai king salmon. Setnetters in the Upper Subdistrict are limited to no more than 24 hours of fishing time per week, and types and amounts of gear are restricted. That limits the commercial division’s ability to control escapement through openings. The department will reevaluate as the run develops and make changes as necessary, according to the emergency order.

The sportfishing community on the Kenai River had been calling for the department to enact more serious restrictions on the late run of kings. The early run was limited to catch-and-release only and did make the escapement goal, but the late run opened with retention but no bait.

Several fishermen and guides put out social media posts and letters asking anglers not to keep kings and calling for the department to enact stronger restrictions. Among the calls was one from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association asking anglers to limit their harvest to fish smaller than 34 inches.

Ben Mohr, KRSA’s executive director, said he thought the call was effective and echoed the feelings already moving in the sportfishery.

“I think it’s been really well received,” he said. “We’ve heard from the professional guide community as well as some of the more traditional folks that encourage catch-and-release, and we’ve all been pretty much on the same page. All of us, within hours of one another, put out the same statement. None of us coordinated it.”

KRSA did not call for catch-and-release, but for a middle step of limiting size retention to fish smaller than 34 inches. That would have allowed the setnetters 36 hours per week instead of 24.

King runs are dismal all over the state, from the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers to the Copper. Few systems are able to sustain open sportfishing harvest, and even fewer are able to support commercial fisheries for kings. Many of those rivers have little sportfishing pressure or development around them, too. Mohr said that points to a larger oceanic issue in the lifecycle of kings as the issue.

“Our emphasis is on anglers writ large,” he said. “I think everybody that’s involved in the fishery realizes how dire the situation is and realizes that it’s on all of us to take appropriate conservation measures.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
07/14/2021 - 9:50am