Hope and fear both spring eternal on the Kenai River.
This year marks a turning point from the abysmal king salmon returns beginning that led to a total closure and federal disaster declaration in 2012. Commercial sockeye fishermen are reaping the rewards in regular commercial openings alongside freshly baited hooks for the king salmon sport fishery.
Still, the threat of paired restrictions hangs without a clearly defined mark of success to ease tensions. In times of relative plenty, like 2016, East Side setnetters still feel a cloud over them, said Pat Shields, the area commercial fishery manager for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Nearly 12,000 kings escaped past the Kenai River sonar counter by July 18, nearly double the most recent three-year average of 6,882. With 3,850 kings harvested in the commercial fishery and 3,450 in the sport fishery, the total king run clocks just less than 20,000 salmon as of July 19.
More than 574,000 sockeye have escaped past the Kenai sonar as of July 19, also more than twice the number of last year by the same date and 90,000 more than the most recent three-year average.
Though “highly unlikely,” according to Shields, ADFG could still end up forecasting a total king salmon escapement of less than 22,500, which could trigger commercial restrictions in August.
If the sockeye run is late, as in 2015 — and Shields anticipates it will be — the August restrictions could mean a lot of dollars left in the water.
Shields said the commercial fleet still frets with concern due to the August portion of the paired restrictions that call for reduced fishing time if the escapement is projected to be less than 22,500 kings.
“The part of the paired restriction plan when you get into August has caused the East Side setnet fishery the most heartburn,” he said.
The setnetters largely feel a commercial restriction in August is “an unfair burden they have to shoulder” due to the switch from total run to escapement. By that point, the sport fishery has already closed.
“That’s the biggest concern now,” he said. “People always are always asking, ‘Are we alright? Are we going to have more than 22,500?’
Spreading the pain
Kenai River paired restrictions came from the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
The meeting was the area’s first since a series of poor king salmon runs culminated by the total shutdown in 2012. Reasons for the decline are still unclear to ADFG biologists but likely involve marine survival conditions. Conservation was a paramount concern at the time and sport and commercial fisheries between 2012 and 2014 were packed with restrictions.
In 2012, East Side setnetters had limited openings. The sport fishery in 2012 started with no bait, then opened for catch and release only July 10 before being closed entirely on July 20. In 2013, the sport fishery started with no bait, opening to catch and release only on July 25 and closing July 28.
The paired restrictions pushed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and approved by the board in 2014, which also included the August restrictions, tie the commercial sockeye fishery to the king sport fishery.
If ADFG forecasts an in-river run of fewer than 22,500 fish — the midpoint of the 15,000 to 30,000 escapement goal — it may limit the sport fishery to no bait or catch-and-release fishing and the East Side setnet fishery to 36 hours per week.
If the in-river fishery is restricted to catch and release, setnetters have only one 12-hour period per week. Normally that fleet has two such 12-hour periods per week with more hours as needed.
When the sport fishery closes on July 31, the plan changes. Instead of a total run size of 22,500, the plan tracks escapement numbers. If ADFG predicts an escapement of 16,500 to 22,500, setnetters may have only 36-hour weeks for the rest of the commercial sockeye season, which ends Aug. 15. If managers predict anything less than 16,500 for escapement, the commercial fleet cannot fish at all.
In both 2014 and 2015, ADFG forecasted small enough chinook salmon returns for the East Side commercial sockeye restrictions to kick in. Fishermen concerned with millions in abandoned sockeye harvest accused ADFG managers of waiting too long to open the fishery in 2015.
No other river system ties the sportfishing and commercial fishing restrictions to each other in regulation. Most rely on a system of emergency orders from either the Sport Fish or the Commercial divisions to keep the right balance.
No measure of success
Few agree on whether paired restrictions do what they are intended to. Other benchmarks for fisheries management plans can include productivity, harvest, or maximum sustainable yield.
Managers and fishermen do agree that paired restrictions aren’t tied to salmon productivity.
Ricky Gease, executive director of guided angler industry group Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said increasing returns was never the goalpost.
“Paired restrictions is not tied to productivity,” he said. “It’s to ensure shared burden of conservation.”
Shields agreed that productivity isn’t the aim, but said escapement was the point, rather than conservation per se.
“The intent of paired restrictions was to have a way to slow down both the in-river fishery and the East Side setnet fishery as much as possible,” Shields said. “The idea was, ‘let’s slow both the setnet fishery and the inriver fishery together to ensure the minimum escapement for king salmon would be met.’ That (existing escapement goal) 15,000-30,000 already takes into account production.
“To the extent they helped ensure they made those goals, that’s about as far as we can go. They tie into getting to the numbers to maximize the yield. That said, this is Cook Inlet, and everybody has a different version of success,” he noted.
Even if productivity could quantify paired restrictions’ success, managers could not trace this year’s run back to 2014 anyway.
Jason Pawluk, the acting ADFG sport fishing management biologist for the Kenai River, said the fishery is too complex to link returns to any single factor.
“I don’t know if you could narrow it down to an effect,” said Pawluk. “You’ve got lots of variables. Runs around the state are all rebuilding this year, and there are no paired restrictions in those fisheries. I’m not sure you can draw that conclusion.”
The late chinook run on the Kenai River usually follows a certain age structure. Younger fish come in first, followed by older fish as the run picks up strength. Most runs, according to Pawluk, have a fairly consistent age composition.
“Looking historically, not including the poor years, you would say it’s approximately somewhere 56 percent four-ocean kings,” said Pawluk, referring to fish who have spent four seasons in the ocean before returning to spawn, typically a six-year-old salmon.
Because these fish make up the bulk of the run, managers can’t trace the link between productivity and paired restrictions passed in 2014 until that brood year returns in 2020.
“Given life history of kings, they stick to it pretty good,” said Pawluk. “The kings returning this year are from spawning events that occurred in 2009 to 2013.”
Linked to restrictions or not, the 2016 kings have been kinder to fishermen than last year, but the 2015 season scares East Side setnetters. Last year, the late sockeye run collided with an ADFG escapement forecast of less than 22,500 king salmon. The Upper Cook Inlet salmon harvest dipped below average in 2015 at 3.1 million fish, 15 percent less than the most recent 10-year average of 3.7 million fish.
Like other Alaska rivers, bar a few outliers like the Copper and Taku rivers, Kenai River king salmon seem to be rebounding. Pawluk said ADFG remains upbeat but careful. Kings may run strong now, but projections change.
“We’re not ready to say it’s a great run,” he said. “When king runs start to rebound, it’s typical to under forecast. The projections should start to come down. But it looks like we’re starting to come out of this.”
As to forecasting an escapement of 22,500 kings for the August commercial fishery, Shields responds with cautious optimism.
“The answer is yes,” Shields said.
DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]