Salmon forecasts out for popular Copper River, Cook Inlet fisheries
Copper River fishermen may be facing a lean year for sockeye but a boom year for kings, while Upper Cook Inlet sockeye are forecast for another weaker run.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released the forecasts for the two regions on Jan. 28, showing a below-average runs for Upper Cook Inlet and Copper River sockeye. Both regions are of high interest: the Copper River because of its high-dollar, early-season sockeye and world-famous king salmon, and Upper Cook Inlet because of its high visibility and accessibility to fishermen of all user groups in Southcentral Alaska.
The Alaska salmon season unofficially begins with the Copper River kings, and this year, there may be something to celebrate for the first time in a while.
ADFG biologists are forecasting a return of 60,000 king salmon to the Copper River, about 20 percent more than the recent 10-year average, with an estimated common property harvest of 36,000 fish. The estimated commercial harvest in 2019 was 18,400 king salmon, according to ADFG.
King salmon everywhere are valuable to commercial fishermen, but Copper River kings especially so because they are the first of the season; in 2018, the average ex-vessel value for kings in Prince William Sound was $12.91 per pound compared to a statewide average of $5.99 per pound, according to ADFG.
By contrast, the wild sockeye forecast for the Copper River is about 1.42 million sockeye, less than the recent 10-year average of 2.1 million sockeye. Combined with expected hatchery returns, the total run forecast comes out to about 1.53 million sockeye, with a common property harvest of 970,000 fish, according to the forecast.
Upper Cook Inlet
Biologists are forecasting a total run of 4.3 million sockeye across the systems of Upper Cook Inlet, including the Kasilof, Kenai and Susitna rivers. That’s about 900,000 fewer fish than the estimated 2019 return of approximately 5.2 million sockeye to all systems. If the forecast proves true, the commercial harvest would come out to about 1.7 million, about 1 million fish less than the recent 20-year average harvest.
The Kenai River is the dominant sockeye system in the drainage and is forecast to see a return of 2.2 million, about 1.4 million fewer than the recent 20-year average, according to the forecast.
The Kasilof forecast is also less than the average, with a projected return of about 723,000 fish, while the Susitna is up: about 49 percent above the recent 10-year average, with a projected return of 571,000 sockeye. Fish Creek is also up from the average, with a projected return of about 121,000 fish.
The run in 2019 was larger than in the previous handful of years, but still came in less than the forecast of about 6 million fish. This is in part because of the underperformance of either two two-ocean age classes or one three-ocean age class, either due to over-forecasting or poor marine survival, according to the forecast.
Kenai and Deshka kings
Things look better for the late run of Kenai River king salmon in 2020, but the early run on the Kenai and the run on the Deshka look less than rosy again.
ADFG released the 2020 outlooks for the king salmon runs on the two rivers on Jan. 27, in advance of the Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting beginning Feb. 7.
The Deshka River is expected to see a return of 10,570 kings; the Kenai River’s early run is estimated at 4,794 kings, less than the average but still within the escapement goal, while the Kenai late run is projected at 22,707, about 60 percent better than the estimated total 2019 run.
The Deshka forecast is within the biological escapement goal of 9,000 to 18,000 fish but is less than the sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 28,000 fish, according to ADFG. The forecast is about 35 percent less than the recent 10-year average but greater than the estimated 2019 return of 8,466 kings.
The Deshka has also seen a recent increase in jack kings — small, younger males — at the weir, which could affect production, according to a memo from Northern Cook Inlet Area Research Biologist Nick DeCovich with the Division of Sport Fish.
The early run of king salmon in the Kenai River — which is demarcated from the late run at the end of June each year — has been declining for about the last decade. The estimated forecast is within the optimum escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 large king salmon but is less than both the five- and 10-year recent averages, according to ADFG.
The late run estimate of 22,707 large fish, on the other hand, will be about on par with the recent five-year average but about half the 10-year average, according to ADFG.
The late run estimate would be within its sustainable escapement goal range, if the forecast proves true next summer.
The king salmon runs in Upper Cook Inlet are some of the highest-interest stocks in the region, but have declined in abundance so much in recent years that sport anglers have diverted effort to other stocks, with the anticipation that fishing will be restricted.
Commercial fishermen in Upper Cook Inlet, particularly setnetters, have had to work around paired restrictions on their time and area based on projected runs to the Kenai River, intended to protect king salmon migrating close to shore.
With the upcoming meeting and several proposals on the docket that would alter king salmon management in Upper Cook Inlet, ADFG managers said they would not announce preseason management measures until after the meeting, according to a press release issued Jan. 27.
“ADF&G understands that anglers, guides, and local businesses are better served by preseason and timely management decisions,” said Sport Fish Cook Inlet Coordinator Matt Miller.
“However, it is prudent to hold off making any preseason management decisions prior to the Board of Fisheries meeting. The board will be considering actions that could impact these fisheries.”
The board meeting is scheduled to begin Feb. 7 in Anchorage.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].