Cook Inlet sockeye forecast improves; kings closed in North
After two disappointing sockeye seasons in a row, the 2019 season may look up for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sockeye salmon forecast, published Jan. 4, predicts a total run of 6 million sockeye to Upper Cook Inlet stream systems, with an expected commercial harvest of 3 million and 1 million for sportfishing and subsistence harvest.
If the forecast proves true, the run will be nearly double the 2018 run of 3.1 million.
The Kenai River, the largest sockeye-producing river in the region, is projected to receive a run of about 3.8 million sockeye, the majority of which are the 1.3 age class (one year in freshwater, three years in saltwater).
The Kasilof River, the second-largest producer, is projected to see about 873,000 sockeye come back, with a slight majority in the 1.3 age class.
The Kenai’s forecast is greater than its 20-year average of 3.5 million, while the Kasilof’s is behind its 20-year average of 979,000 fish.
The Susitna River is forecast to see about 343,000 sockeye come back, while Fish Creek is forecast with a run of 124,000 sockeye, according to ADFG. The Susitna’s forecast is less than its recent 20-year average return of 377,000, while Fish Creek’s is significantly greater than its 20-year average of 83,000.
In salmon, age correlates to the size and weight of the fish. In the Kenai, the predominance of the 1.3 age class-fish tracks with the 20-year average, while the Kasilof’s 20-year average has seen more fish in the 1.2 age class.
For the Susitna and Fish Creek, the predominant age class is forecast to be 1.2-age class fish, which falls in line with the 20-year average trend for Fish Creek. The Susitna River’s 20-year average usually sees more 1.3-age class fish than 1.2, according to ADFG.
The commercial harvest is projected to be about 200,000 more than the 20-year average, and more than triple last year’s harvest of 800,000 sockeye. If the forecast holds true, it’ll be good news for Upper Cook Inlet’s commercial fishermen, who largely depend on sockeye salmon as their commercial species and have had two disappointing seasons in a row.
Despite a sockeye run that turned out greater than the forecast in 2017, the commercial harvest came in about 1.8 million, which was close to the forecast but about 37 percent below the historical average in the fishery.
The next year, a below-average forecast proved to be even worse than expected in 2018, with more than half the run arriving after Aug. 1 and commercial fishing management openings misaligned with the timing of the runs.
By the end of the season, commercial fishermen had landed about $11 million worth of salmon, about 67 percent less than the previous 10-year average, according to ADFG’s 2018 season summary. The one exception was silver salmon, which arrived in large numbers late in the summer.
“All species-specific exvessel values other than coho salmon were significantly below average in 2018 in UCI,” according to the 2018 season summary.
Most of the failing was in two specific age classes — the age class 1.3 and 2.3 fish, also called “three-ocean” fish because they’ve spent one or two years in freshwater and three years at sea. The 1.3 age class fish returned at 10 percent of the forecasted level, while 2.3 fish returned at 50 percent, according to the season summary.
Northern Cook Inlet closures
Though sockeye forecasts in Upper Cook Inlet are looking up, the king salmon season in Northern Cook Inlet isn’t. ADFG announced preseason restrictions on Jan. 7 on king salmon fishing for sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries across the region, largely based on poor projected returns to the Deshka River.
“The department must make these closures and restrictions because of a recent pattern of extremely poor returns for king salmon stocks in the NCI area,” said ADFG Acting Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang in the announcement. “The outlook for this season is particularly worrisome with the Deshka River king salmon forecast well below the escapement goal.”
The Deshka River is an indicator stock for king salmon in the region. The forecast projects 8,466 king salmon between age classes 1.2 and 1.4 to return to the river, far less than the lower end of the sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 28,000 fish. Like other rivers across Alaska, the Northern Cook Inlet streams have seen declining king runs in the last decade; the forecast is about half of the recent 10-year average of 16,647 kings and less than a third of the long-term average of 31,416 kings, according to Fish and Game.
The Susitna River, Yentna River and Little Susitna River drainages will be closed to sportfishing for kings, as will the directed commercial salmon fishery in Northern Cook Inlet. Subsistence fisheries, which receive a management priority, will be restricted to two days per week during the respective subsistence fishery seasons, according to the announcement.
ADFG will monitor the runs and provide more fishing opportunity should the run warrant it, Vincent-Lang said in the announcement.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].