Fish and Game forecasts fair to poor sockeye runs for Cook Inlet, Copper River

  • A commercial salmon fishing boat heads out of the Kenai River toward Cook Inlet on Sunday, June 16, 2019. Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologists are forecasting a "weak" sockeye return to the Kenai this summer. (Matt Tunseth / ADN)

State biologists are projecting a mixed bag of returns this spring and summer for Southcentral’s popular sockeye salmon fisheries.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials on Feb. 7 issued a forecast estimating that just less than 5 million sockeye will return to upper Cook Inlet river systems, allowing for a harvest of nearly 3 million sockeye from the region overall.

It’s expected approximately 2.9 million fish from the total run will be headed to the Kenai, with another 941,000 pegged for the nearby Kasilof. The two rivers host the largest sport and personal use sockeye fisheries in the region and provide most of the commercially harvested sockeye in the Inlet as well.

The forecast for 2.9 million sockeye to the Kenai would be about 20% less than the 20-year average of 3.7 million fish, but right in line with the five-year average of slightly more than 2.9 million sockeye, according to Fish and Game figures.

Commercially harvested upper Cook Inlet salmon generate a dockside, or exvessel, value of $27 million in an average year; the vast majority of that is from the relatively abundant and high-value sockeye.

Both the Kenai and total upper Cook Inlet 2022 returns would be considered “weak” by Fish and Game when compared against returns over the past 35 years, the forecast report states.

The Kasilof run would similarly be smaller than the 20-year average of 992,000 sockeye, though only slightly, but would be better than the recent average of 773,000 fish.

The 2022 return of sockeye to the Susitna River is expected to continue a gradual decline in the abundance of the stocks that spawn and rear in the tributaries of the large, glacial-fed Susitna. Approximately 310,000 Susinta-bound sockeye are forecast for this year, down from both the 10-year average of 365,000 and the five-year average of 319,000 sockeye.

Fish Creek on Knik Arm, which supports a personal use fishery in years of high sockeye abundance, is projected to contribute 89,000 sockeye to the overall Cook Inlet stock this year, which would be slightly above the long-term average of 86,000 fish but slightly below more recent runs.

More than 5.9 million sockeye returned to upper Cook Inlet last year, which was significantly better than last year’s preseason forecast of nearly 4.4 million sockeye. The Kenai, Susitna and Fish Creek all outperformed expectations last year and had runs larger than the long-term average returns.

While the 2021 Cook Inlet sockeye return was in line with the long-term average, the commercial harvest of approximately 1.4 million sockeye was well off the recent harvest average of more than 2.4 million fish and less than half of the historical average Cook Inlet sockeye harvest, according to Fish and Game data going back to 1975. That’s because a very poor return of late-run king salmon to the Kenai led managers to significantly curtail fishing periods for commercial harvesters targeting sockeye in order to minimize the number of kings they would otherwise incidentally intercept.

The department’s forecast for this year’s late Kenai king run is approximately 16,000 large kings, which is just within the 15,000-30,000 large fish optimum escapement goal set by the Board of Fisheries. The fact that the forecast is near the lower end of the escapement goal range means both the in-river king sport fishery and the east-side commercial setnet sockeye fishery will start the season with restrictions in place.

Further challenging the Inlet’s commercial harvesters this year is the regulatory closure of the federal waters of the Inlet to commercial fishing. This came after officials in Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration rejected court-ordered plans for state and federal co-management of Cook Inlet salmon following a U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals ruling.

Also known as the exclusive economic zone, or the EEZ, the Cook Inlet federal waters cover the area more than three miles offshore from roughly Anchor Point to north of Ninilchik on the Kenai Peninsula. Historically, the EEZ has accounted for roughly 20% of the total Cook Inlet salmon harvest — sockeye and other species — and nearly half of the drift gillnet fleet’s total catch, according to a North Pacific Fishery Management Council analysis of the fishery.

A spokesman for the Department of Fish and Game did not respond to questions regarding how the commercial fishery will be managed with the EEZ closed and how ADFG officials expect that to impact the upper Cook Inlet sockeye harvest.

 

Tough Copper River outlook

Stakeholders in the famed Copper River sockeye fishery are likely in for another slow season, according to the Fish and Game forecast published Feb. 4.

Department researchers are projecting a total run of 1.4 million sockeye to the Copper, which would be 34% below the 10-year average return of more than 2.1 million fish. The forecast run would allow for a total harvest of nearly 930,000 fish and a commercial harvest of approximately 716,000 sockeye, compared to an average harvest of roughly 1.25 million sockeye from the Copper River district.

The poor forecast comes after three out of four years of very poor Copper River king and sockeye seasons.

On Jan. 21, U.S. Department of Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo issued disaster declarations for both the 2018 and 2020 Copper River king and sockeye fisheries. Weak returns, particularly early in the run last year, limited the Copper River district commercial sockeye harvest to just 397,700 fish.

With the first openers set for mid-May each year, the Copper River fishery is among the first large salmon fisheries every spring, and fresh Copper River king and sockeye fillets are correspondingly among the highest value salmon in the world.

The 2022 Copper River king forecast is expected in the coming weeks, according to the sockeye forecast.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
02/09/2022 - 12:52pm