Cook Inlet fishermen celebrate ‘Return of the Reds’ with hope for 2019
Cook Inlet fishermen are looking forward to their salmon season with high hopes that the sockeye will arrive in better numbers than last year.
On June 11, fishermen and processors grilled up some of the first Cook Inlet salmon of the year at the Pacific Star processing plant in Kenai, gathering to build excitement for the coming season.
The plant is now receiving salmon from the west side of Cook Inlet, while the fishermen in the drift gillnet and east side set gillnet fleets gear up for their first expected openings in the coming weeks.
The event, dubbed the Return of the Reds, was reminiscent of the recent gatherings in Anchorage and Seattle to receive the first Copper River salmon of the year, a heralded fish in the culinary and fisheries world. The Kenai version is the first in what the Alaska Salmon Alliance hopes will be a new annual tradition for the area, said ASA President Nate Berga.
Retailers, fishermen and local government officials gathered at Pacific Star and donated proceeds from sale of grilled fish to the Kenai Peninsula Food Bank. The event was less about promoting the processor or the industry than connecting Alaskans with their locally available fish as well as building excitement for the season, he said.
“The biggest thing that we wanted to focus on is getting fresh Alaska salmon onto Alaskans’ plates,” he said.
Alaska salmon is an internationally valuable commodity, with a huge percentage being shipped overseas to Asia and some being consumed in the Lower 48. Many Alaskans fill their freezers with salmon they harvest themselves at personal-use dipnet fisheries or in sport fisheries, but others may not have the chance — and the ASA wants to see Alaskans more connected with their commercial fisheries, Berga said.
Commercial fisheries are also one of the largest private industry employers in Alaska, and most of the Cook Inlet fishermen live in the state according to permit data.
“This is a time when our state is struggling,” he said. “This money is staying here.”
Upper Cook Inlet faced a terrible sockeye harvest in 2018 — about two-thirds below the recent 20-year average — with the total estimated run coming in at 1.7 million sockeye to the Kenai River and 697,000 to the Kasilof River. Fishermen sat on the docks for much of the season, and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the Kenai River dipnet fishery a day early with an eye toward making escapement goals.
The sonar has yet to click on for the Kenai River, the major driver in the region, this year, but early reports from sport fishermen on the river indicate good abundance. The Russian River sport fishery opened June 11 at midnight, with more than 8,400 sockeye past the weir on Lower Russian Lake as of June 10, though it takes about a week for sockeye to typically make it to the Russian River from the lower Kenai, according to ADFG.
The large early numbers and fish holding in the Kenai River prompted ADFG to open the area known as the Russian River Sanctuary — a section of the Kenai River close to the confluence of the two rivers — earlier than usual, according to a news release.
“Looks like the Russian River is off to a strong start. We haven’t seen numbers like this for several years,” stated Area Management Biologist Colton Lipka. “Sport fishing for sockeye salmon in the Russian River area will likely be good to excellent.”
If ADFG’s forecast proves out, about 6 million sockeye will return to the stream systems throughout Upper Cook Inlet this year, about 200,000 more than the 20-year average. That increase is mostly in the Kenai River, where the forecast estimates about 3.8 million salmon to return this year. The Kasilof, which is the second-largest sockeye system in the region, is forecasted at 873,000 sockeye, which is about 94,000 fish less than its 20-year average.
Sockeye are the primary driver in Cook Inlet, but fishermen are also out for chum, silver and pink salmon as well. In Lower Cook Inlet, fishermen are oriented toward pink salmon harvests, both wild and hatchery, and some smaller sockeye runs than further north.
ADFG’s preseason forecast about 2.4 million in commercial common property harvest for the area. That’s only the commercial common property harvest, as researchers have recently found a high percentage of hatchery-marked fish in Lower Cook Inlet streams, possibly confusing the traditional spawner-recruit forecasts the department has done in the past, according to the forecast.
Other species were also produced as commercial common property harvest forecasts, including 125,000 sockeye, 84,800 chum, 13,700 silvers and 452 kings, according to the forecast.
The first Cook Inlet drift gillnet period is expected after June 19 this year, which would fall on June 20, while the East Side setnet fisheries won’t open until the first regular period on or after June 25 in the Kasilof section and July 8 in the Kenai and East Forelands sections.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].