Kenai late run king management opens conservatively

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game will restrict sport and commercial fishing on the Kenai River to begin July based on total late run of king salmon forecast to be 30,000 fish.

Sport fishermen will be restricted to an unbaited single hook on an artificial lure to ensure a cautious harvest approach and commercial setnet fishermen will likely be restricted to regular Monday and Thursday periods until a better estimate of the run size is available.

The sport fishery opened Friday, July 1, but commercial setnet fishing has not yet opened on Kenai stocks. The Kasilof River section of the setnet salmon fishery opened June 29.

Preseason forecasts for king salmon are below average but above the amount necessary to open the Upper Cook Inlet commercial sockeye fishery. To protect the still-sensitive run, managers want to remain conservative.

King salmon have shown better numbers in Southcentral this season than the abysmal returns of the last three years, including the Kenai River. The early-run kings totaled 9,850 by the end of June — more than 3,000 above ADFG estimates.

Pat Shields, the area commercial fishing manager for ADFG, said the early run hopefully means a healthy late run.

“There is a relationship that most often comes true, that when the early run is better than expected, the late run is better than expected,” said Shields.

However, the forecasts and estimates don’t stack up to real numbers.

“Until we get enough data, we kind of want to back off these fisheries and be careful,” Shields said. “We want to start off both the sport and the commercial fisheries conservatively.”

Forecasts for late-run kings are only just above the minimum for a full commercial and sport fishery.

 “Based on the preseason outlook, the 2016 Kenai River late-run king salmon total run is expected to be approximately 30,000 fish,” reads an emergency order released by ADFG on July 1. “Expected harvest scenarios in a run this size without fishery restrictions risks not achieving the lower end of the sustainable escapement goal. Therefore, beginning on July 1, the Kenai River sport fishery will be managed conservatively under a provision of no bait, per 5 AAC 75.003.”

Kenai River commercial and sport fisheries are managed in tandem. Based on the preseason forecast, paired restrictions require a no bait for the sport fishery and 36-hour weeks for the commercial setnet sockeye fishery if late run kings are projected to return to the Kenai River in numbers less than 22,500.

ADFG estimates commercial setnetters will take 5,900 to 6,500 Kenai kings while targeting sockeye.

“The 2016 preseason forecast for late-run Kenai River king salmon is for below average total run of approximately 30,000 fish,” according to the order. “This is approximately half of the 1986–2015 average total run of approximately 56,000 fish and is insufficient to provide harvest in an unrestricted sport, commercial, and personal use fishery without jeopardizing attainment of the sustainable escapement goal. Therefore, prohibiting bait in the sport fishery is warranted.”

ADFG forecasts a total run of 7.1 million sockeye salmon, with a total run of approximately 4.7 million sockeye salmon to the Kenai River. Like the no bait sport fishery, the commercial fishery will be managed carefully to ensure both king and sockeye escapement. ADFG said it will almost certainly have emergency closures that restrict the normal commercial fishing open periods.

Last year, the Kenai River commercial setnet sockeye fishery was restricted to 36-hour weeks until July 25.

“Utilization of additional hours beyond Monday and Thursday regular 12 hour periods will be predicated upon achieving escapement objectives of both sockeye and king salmon stocks,” the report reads. “It is highly unlikely that all of the hours available in the sockeye salmon management plans will be used until inseason escapement estimates project goals will be achieved.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

07/01/2016 - 2:16pm