King concerns drive Cook Inlet fisheries


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Commercial set gillnetters push their skiff further into the Cook Inlet as they race to pick salmon from their nets during the first opener July 9 near Kenai.

Photo/Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion

UPDATE: Beginning July 19, The Alaska Department of Fish and Game limited sport fishing for Kenai River kings to catch and release only, with barbless hooks, which will mean additional limits for setnetters as well.

Strong sockeye returns and low king numbers continue to drive the interplay of several Cook Inlet fisheries.

So far this summer, the challenge for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG, is to provide opportunity to harvest sockeyes while limiting king mortality, said Area Management Biologist Pat Shields, from the department’s Division of Commercial Fisheries, during a July 16 interview with the Journal.

Guiding the department’s management decisions are several plans drafted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries — and changed at the board’s February 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting.

Sport, commercial and personal-use fishermen all target Cook Inlet sockeyes. They also catch king salmon.

On the Kenai River, 3,006 late-run kings and 262,614 late-run sockeye are thought to have swum upriver through July 14.

Commercial fishers in Upper Cook Inlet’s Central District had harvested about 1 million sockeyes and 1,000 kings in Upper Cook Inlet as of July 15, according to ADFG’s blue-sheet estimate. Cook Inlet-wide, commercial fishers have taken an estimated 1.4 million fish, including 1.2 million sockeyes, 3,000 kings, 53,000 chums, 10,000 cohos and 96,000 pinks.

The Kenai River number is the lowest king count by that date in any recent year, according to ADFG’s fish counts, and fishing was limited, but not closed, at that time.

Through at least July 16, sport anglers on the Kenai could not use bait. Under the February changes, which created paired restrictions between different users, that means personal use fishermen cannot retain kings and commercial setnet fishers are limited to 36 hours of fishing time per week.

That could change at anytime.

Shields said that July 14 is typically the historical quarter point of the run, meaning that about 25 percent of the kings have usually been counted by that date. If that holds true this year — and in some recent years the king run timing has been later — the total king return would fall short of the sustainable escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 kings.

Now, Shields said ADFG is considering further in-river restrictions, likely limiting the king fishery to catch and release.

That decision would come from the Division of Sport Fish, but it would mean further commercial restrictions, as well.

Shields referred questions about such a decision to the Divison of Sport Fish — no one there was immediately available to discuss it.

The management plan generally calls for further limitations when it appears that the late-run king salmon escapement is going to come in below 15,000 kings.

The next step-down would be to go catch and release for kings on the Kenai River, leading to a paired commercial restriction — no more than 12 hours of commercial setnet fishing opportunity per week.

If that occurs, and sockeye numbers also increase, Shields said management would get more difficult.

“That really puts you in a no-win situation,” he said.

Then, ADFG will have to rely on the drift fleet to harvest sockeyes even more heavily.

In the meantime, the department is trying to manage to take advantage of sockeye abundance and minimize king mortality.

Shields said the department has to focus on maximizing sockeye harvest when it orders an opener.

“We’re really trying to strategize the way we fish the eastside to only be in the water when there are fish there,” he said.

Some fishers, however, have not even had 36-hours of fishing opportunity.

North of the Blanchard line in the Kenai and East Forelands sections, setnetters have put their nets out just once, Shields said.

The department is waiting to see more sockeyes return before offering additional openers.

“We haven’t had a big surge of sockeye salmon show up at the Kenai River yet,” Shields said.

Until then, that section won’t be used very heavily.

The Kasilof River sockeye run has been stronger, so far, than the Kenai return, Shields said, so there’s been more fishing activity there.

As of July 15, 266,927 sockeyes were counted on the Kasilof. That’s a strong run, but less than were counted by the same date in 2013, indicating that the strong early run was in part a matter of earlier-than-usual run timing.

Also to protect kings the Kasilof section has generally been fished in what’s called the half-mile fishery. That means that instead of allowing fishing for a full 1.5 miles from the mean high-tide mark, setnets are limited to the half-mile closest to shore. That cuts out two-thirds of the normal fishing area, reducing the overall king harvest, Shields said.

“That’s to allow king salmon to pass through,” he said.

Shields described the current efforts as a “watch and wait” mode, with sockeye counts expected to increase in the near future.

“We’re ever hopeful that kings will also improve,” he said.

In the past, more kings typically start returning to the river when tides slacken; a big tide series just ended, offering some amount of optimism, Shields said.

Statewide catch climbing

Statewide, commercial fishers have harvested about 63 million salmon, including 36.3 million sockeyes and 21.3 million pinks.

Bristol Bay leads in regional catches, with an estimated 27.9 million sockeyes harvested as of July 15.

The strong catches are driven primarily by the Naknek-Kvichak District, and not every Bristol Bay river is in that position.

According to a July 15 release, the Togiak River escapement and inriver estimates were behind expectations, and fishing schedule reductions were expected there if the counts did not increase. The current estimated escapement is 23,000 sockeyes, compared to a harvest in the Togiak district of 165,000 sockeyes.

The Igushik, Nushagak, Wood, Kvichak, Naknek and Egegik Rivers have all met their escapement goals.

Prince William Sound has taken the next largest chunk of the harvest, with an estimated 23.4 million salmon  landed as of July 15, according to ADFG estimates.

The majority of that catch has come from pink salmon — seiners have harvested an estimated 17.7 million pinks. The Copper River drift fleet has taken the largest share of PWS sockeyes, about 1.9 million of the 3 million harvested throughout the Sound’s fisheries.

In the westward region, including Kodiak and the Alaska Peninsula, the total catch is 5.1 million fish, including 1.5 million sockeyes out of Kodiak and 2.3 million sockeyes out of the Alaska Peninsula.

In Southeast Alaska, chums make up the majority of the commercial harvest — about 2 million of the estimated 3.9 million fish harvested as of July 15. Just 259,000 sockeyes have been caught in that region.

King catches are also strong, with a total catch of 281,000 including 144,000 by the the summer troll fleet, which has its highest-ever allotment of kings this summer.

Southern Southeast seiners have also harvested about 1 million pinks.

Chums also drive the farthest north fisheries in the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region, where fisheries are picking up.

About 560,000 of the 781,000 fish estimated to be harvested in that region so far were chums, including 447,000 from the Yukon, the majority of which came from the lower river. The Yukon pink catch is about 42,000 fish, all from the lower river.

In Norton Sound, the chum catch so far is 59,000, with a pink harvest of 130,000 fish.

Kuskokwim fishers have also harvested 16,000 chums, and 2,000 kings in the marine fishery at Kuskokwim Bay.

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