Good salmon runs forecast for 2012 in Cook Inlet

Upper Cook Inlet is expecting another better-than-average salmon season in 2012, according to the forecast released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last week.

Managers are expecting a total sockeye salmon run of 6.2 million fish in UCI, with a harvest by all user groups of 4.4 million sockeye. Four million of the returning fish are expected to come into the Kenai River.

This comes on the heels of a surprisingly strong Kenai River run in 2011, which was the result of the return of many more than expected age 2-3 fish, or 6-year-old sockeye that spend two winters in fresh water and three winters in salt water.

Managers had been expecting around 275,000 of that year class to return last year, and instead 2.9 million came back.

Area Management Biologist Pat Shields said managers theorize that the reason that happened with last year's run was large over-escapements in the parent years.

There were several years of over-escapement, which can lead to a vicious cycle and ever-diminishing returns.

"You can have so many fry in the lake that by the next spring when they are ready to smolt out and leave the system, they haven't gotten big enough to do so, so they stay an additional year," Shields said. "Because they stay in the system an additional year, there's additional pressure on the fry that are from the following year's brood. So you have competition for resources."

All of which made forecasting the 2012 run more difficult, according to Shields. He said that the research staff forecasts runs by year class, and when they got to the 6-year-old component for next year's return, there were three primary models they could use. Each one told them something different.

"They were highly variable," he said.

The model researches had the most confidence in was the one in the middle. It predicts a return of 1.4 million age 2-3 sockeye to the Kenai River, or 35 percent of the run. The 20-year average return of age 2-3 sockeye to the Kenai River is 19 percent.

Shields said that the department did not have a great deal of confidence in the methods used to enumerate out-migrating smolt in 2008 and 2009, but if they compared the number of 2-year-old smolt leaving the system in 2008 with the number of 6-year-old sockeye that returned in 2011, and applied that ratio to the number of 2-year-old smolt leaving the system in 2009, it would predict a "very high number" of returning 6-year-olds next season. However, because of the lack of confidence in the model, that was not the number included in the 2012 forecast.

The returns to the Kasilof River have been down lately, and the forecast for the 2012 Kasilof sockeye return is 754,000 fish, 21 percent below the 20-year average of 950,000.

The forecast last year was for a return of 929,000 sockeye; the actual run came in 7 percent below forecast at 860,000.

"The Kasilof is in a period of lower productivity right now," Shields said, noting that the lower numbers may be more a result of forecasting than actual run size.

The Cook Inlet Aquaculture Associa-tion, which runs the smolt counting program in the Kasilof River has been counting fewer fish, but Shields said some of that might be attributed to water clarity.

He said Fish and Game has received anecdotal reports of clearer water in Tustumena Lake and the Kasilof River, which may mean that the smolt are better able to see and avoid the traps set to estimate their numbers.

Shields also said once the season begins there will be some management changes — partly because of regulations and partly because of new strategies based on lessons learned from last season.

The 2011 run came in largely all at once, with hardly any fish showing up before the record drift fleet opening on July 14. Up until that point, there was a cumulative commercial harvest of 269,000 sockeye from all gear types, 43 percent below the average harvest of 475,000 from 2000-2010.

On July 14, the drift fleet harvested 685,000 fish, or 1,600 per boat, the highest catch per unit of effort ever. The setnet fishery was closed down by regulation.

After that, the fishery set several records, including the most fish ever caught by the setnetters in one period, on July 16 (450,000), the most days of the offshore test boat index exceeding 100 (9 days), and the most sockeye past the Kenai River sonar in a 24-hour period (233,000).

That, combined with low returns of Kenai River late run king salmon, made headaches for managers, processors, and fishermen alike, something Shields would like to avoid this year.

A low king salmon return in 2012 would again complicate things, especially if the sockeye run comes in at or above forecast.

Shields said protecting the king salmon run while trying not to over-escape the sockeye run typically involves compromise.

"You tend to be high or over the escapement on sockeye, and try to squeak in or barely make the bottom of the other stock," he said. "That presents problems for both."

He has some tools in the toolbox that he can use to ease the situation, but is also looking at some new restrictions that did not take place last season, due to the Board of Fisheries clarifying its intent on regulations codified at the 2011 Cook Inlet meetings in Anchorage.

"The (ADF&G) commissioner, through the Board of Fisheries, has drafted a kind of amended management plan for the drifters, and it specifies certain days (they) have to fish in the narrow corridor, or old corridor, not the expanded (corridor)" he said, "and then there are other days that (they) can fish the expanded corridor."

Those are laid out by specific dates, as is the use of Area 1, south of Kalgin Island. The changes are to three periods, and generally involve removing the expanded corridor from openings that include Area 1. Boats will still be able to fish the original corridor with Area 1.

At the anticipated run size for 2012, there also is the possibility of an extra Area 1 and original corridor opening, other than the regular Monday and Thursday openings, between July 9 and July 15, something Shields said may have come in handy last year if the dates had been different.

"This coming year, for example, if we had a huge day on the 12th, I'd have the 13th, 14th and 15th that the management plan does allow for the option of a third period."

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978.

She can be reached at [email protected].


12/15/2011 - 9:32am