Kenai River late-run kings looking better than recent lows

Photo/Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion

A dreary chinook run has plagued the Kenai River for the past few years, but numbers for 2015 shine a somewhat bright light on the state’s most heavily fished river and most iconic species.

“We’re seeing things better than the previous two years,” said Jason Pawluk, assistant Kenai area biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG. “That’s encouraging; that’s good. We’re seeing an increase in abundance. We’re seeing an improvement in the age structure of the run, larger, older fish than the previous two years. It’s not a great run, I’m going to stress that, but it’s a little better than the previous two runs.”

As of July 20, ADFG’s sonar counter at the Mile 14 mark on the Kenai River has counted 9,722 late run chinook. The escapement goal is 15,000 to 30,000 fish. The sonar only counted 6,081 kings by July 20, 2013, and counted only 4,363 for the same date in 2014.

This year, ADFG moved the counter from a lower mark on the river at Mile 8.6. In the last two years, biologists have run both sonar counters concurrently, and the current counts match the timing and structure of the previous two years.

ADFG has only been using this sonar since 2013, so comparing 2015 numbers to a historical average is tricky, as ADFG must compile a run reconstruction to assess the historical averages. This puts a damper on the comparative health of this year’s run, as 2013 and 2014 were abysmal turnouts for kings.

“We are comparing it to the last two years because we only have two years of ARIS sonar,” said Pawluk. “It just so happens those were two of the worst on record.”

However, compared against 2014 and 2013, this year is a marked improvement for the late run kings for this time of the season.

Both years grazed the lower end of the Kenai River’s late run escapement goal of between 15,000 and 30,000. In 2013, 16,645 kings were counted toward escapement; in 2014, only 14,134 made it.

Right now, Pawluk said, ADFG biologists are looking at several escapement projections based on different run timings and the historical midpoint of the run.

Using the previous sonar counter at Mile 8.6, the historical midpoint of the Kenai River late chinook run was July 22. With the Mile 14 sonar, the midpoint for the run is between four and six days later. Pawluk uses July 28 as the midpoint.

Pawluk said ADFG thinks the 2015 Kenai River run is an early run. Using July 28 as the midpoint, he said he believes the escapement goal can be met.

Management, he said, maintains the guarded confidence of status quo. ADFG will not loosen current restrictions, but will not clamp down any screws, either.

“We are not considering closure or catch and release at this point,” said Pawluk. “We’re maintaining status quo, maintaining sport harvest with no bait (with) 10 days left in the sport fishery. The east side setnet commercial fishery is restricted to 30 days. With the personal use dipnet fishery there’s no retention of kings.”

Still waiting for sockeye

Kings are seeing a welcome upswing, but the Kenai River sockeye harvest is a slower starter than usual, which has been seen around the state in 2015.

Through July 19, the official Kenai River commercial sockeye harvest totals 825,000, according to ADFG commercial fishery manager Pat Shields. Harvest totals through July 21 have not yet been added, but Shields said they put the total at just more than one million fish harvested.

The late run Kenai River red salmon escapement goal is 700,000 to 1,200,000. As of July 20, only 353,000 have been counted by ADFG’s sonar.

The number is fairly grim considering ADFG projections.

“The expectation of harvest this year was a total of 5.8 million sockeye,” said Shields. “That would leave 3.7 million to be harvested all groups, and put the commercial harvest between 2.8 to 3 million.”

July 15 is the historical midpoint of the run based on how many fish are counted in the test fishery, the sockeye harvest for the Kenai River looks superficially about one million short of projection.

“If you looked at July 15, and that was the midpoint, we’d have one of the lowest years on record, if not the lowest,” Shields said.

However, sockeye all around the state have been swarming into nets later than expected. Bristol Bay’s run stood at a limp 9 million as of the season’s midpoint, leading many to doubt that the projected 37.6 million harvest could be met. As of last week, the number has soared in at a record late timing and now tops 32 million fish.

Chignik’s commercial sockeye harvest also got to a slow start, with 774,289 fish caught through July 19 of a projected harvest of 1.9 million.

Shields said ADFG biologists are seeing signs of a similar late run, with good results from their best predictor, a test fishing index.

“Kenai sockeye salmon is going to be late,” said Shields. “We don’t know the abundance yet. The push or front end of the run is just coming into the Inlet now. We’ll be paying close attention to the test fishery.”

ADFG makes commercial Kenai River harvest projections by test fishing at six separate sites up and down Cook Inlet from Anchor Point to Homer. Based on the strength of these test indexes, measures by Catch Per Unit of Effort, or CPUE, managers can estimate the likely strength of the run.

“Yesterday, the test index CPUE was 204,” said Shields. “We already have 50 (on July 21). Those indicate a good number of fish coming into the Inlet. I expect that if that trend continues, we’ll see catches and increased escapements over the next number of days. ”

Shields cautioned that projections and estimates are exactly that. Mercurial fisheries simply force ADFG to keep a close eye on their best indicators and hope for the best.

“One million to 1.2 million is the in-river goal for Kenai sockeye,” Shields said. “We can range from having problems even meeting the low end of that goal to quickly exceeding that goal. That’s why we’ll watch most closely are the test fish, and at commercial harvest when we do have it in the middle of the river.”

Potentially, a late Kenai River sockeye run will be a boon for the commercial fleet, as ADFG will have to control over escapement by allowing more harvest. The Kasilof River has already reached 315,000 toward its sockeye escapement, near the upper limits of its 160,000 to 390,000 escapement goal.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

11/20/2016 - 3:14pm