The Board of Fisheries Kenai River king salmon task force is back on track after canceling the second of their four scheduled meetings. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, Jan. 14, at the Challenger Learning Center in Kenai from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The task force grew out of the disastrously poor king salmon run on the Kenai River last season which forced the closure of the in-river sport fishery and the east side commercial setnet fishery for most of the season. The task force is made up of commercial, sport and personal-use fishermen, as well as two Board of Fisheries members.
The group has a limited focus, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game area management biologist Pat Shields in Soldotna.
“The task force has a very specific objective, a narrow objective, and that is, is there instruction or guidance that could be provided to (ADF&G) on poor king salmon runs so that we don’t have to completely close both the in-river and the setnet fishery (because of weak runs)?” he said. “Is there something that we can do different than what we did in 2012 that would allow some level of harvest by both of those fisheries?”
Shields said that the current management plan does not allow for much leeway.
“It pretty much says that if you don’t project ‘this number’ (of returning kings) you close both the setnet fishery and the in-river fishery.”
The group had its initial meeting in mid-November which brought everyone up to speed and distributed available materials, but canceled the December meeting while waiting for a new report, which Shields said should produce results.
“I think you’ll see a lot more productive conversation, debate, occur at the January 14th meeting. Both sides, both the sport and commercial, have had a couple of months to digest all of the data, and the escapement goal report is going to come out, that’s going to be a very, very important piece of information,” he said.
He said the department had put together a team to study king salmon escapement in the Kenai River, and they have now put together a report that is being reviewed.
“That will set a new escapement goal for late run king salmon in the Kenai River, and we’ll have a new tool to measure that escapement, that’s the DIDSON sonar,” he said.
He commented that the report is going to go a long way toward helping the task force address the question of how to manage the fishery when king salmon runs are weak, and is important enough to the process to justify canceling one of the four scheduled meetings.
The official summary of the first task force meeting outlined the questions that members hoped to find answers to, as well as points they hoped to either make or have clarified.
One management tool that got some scrutiny in the first meeting was the mandatory “windows,” where the setnet fishery is ordered closed for certain hours/days regardless of run strength or timing, basically to allow for a reliable push of fish into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for sport and personal-use fishermen.
It appears from the summary of the meeting that the group determined there are many similarities between mandatory closures and regularly scheduled openings, and that both tie managers’ hands to some degree, but managers are much more free to add extra openings than to allow fishing during mandatory closures.
One idea that was brought up was changing to a mix of regular and abundance-based openings, although it was not made clear how that would differ from what happens now with regular and emergency openings, other than to say “fish the setnets when sockeye are abundant and get out when they are not,” which may mean emergency closures during regular periods.
It was noted that regularly scheduled openings are important for processors and crews.
There also was an expressed desire to tie setnet closures to in-river closures, likely brought about by the sport and guided-sport fishermen being allowed to continue catch-and-release fishing, which has up to a 25 percent mortality rate, while the setnet fishery was closed.
In addition to the official task force summary, the Kenai River Sportfish Association sent out notes to its members following the first meeting. While not doing so explicitly, those notes did hint that there is a correlation between the explosive rise of the sport/guided-sport king salmon fishery in the 1980s and the decline of Kenai River king salmon, especially the largest ones.
“Much larger numbers of late-run king salmon were available in the 1980s than now,” those notes state. “The original escapement goal was adopted after estimating total return for three years during which the estimate of total abundance ranged from 45,000 to 90,000 fish. The notion was that a healthy population of king salmon produced about three adults for every spawner, so the BOF agreed that the goal would be a range of 15,000-30,000 fish.
“If the Didson sonar count in 2012 was close to accurate, we realized a total return of just over 22,000 fish, or far less than half the 1980s’ reality,” the KRSA summary notes.
It continues: “In the late 1980s, the sport fishery was growing rapidly with no end in sight. Effort had tripled in less than ten years.
“In the 1980s, older (six and seven year olds) and larger fish were much more common. Numbers of large, old fish have declined considerably in current runs, both on the Kenai and elsewhere statewide,” it adds.
The Jan. 14 meeting will be open to the public, and while initially it was not anticipated that the public would be able to participate in the meeting, there were few enough attendees at the November meeting that the public was allowed to offer comments and suggestions.
A full list of the materials provided to task force members, along with an agenda and other information, is available through the Board of Fish website at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.taskforce.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.