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Strong run of sockeye forecast for 2014

Posted: December 4, 2013 - 2:10pm

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is expecting another solid sockeye salmon run in Upper Cook Inlet for 2014, but a weak return to the Susitna River may make management problematic.

ADF&G is predicting a total return of 6.1 million sockeye, 3.8 million of those to the Kenai River, with a harvest of 4.3 million by all user groups.

The forecast calls for another large return of fish to the Kenai River that spent two years in fresh water and three years in salt water, what are known as six-year-olds. The norm is one year in fresh water.

That is because of several years of over-escapements, according to area management biologist Pat Shields.

“What we theorize has caused this increased number of six-year-olds the last few years is that we have had a number of years of large escapement events that produced fry ... that didn’t get big enough after one winter in the lake to smolt out, so they stayed an additional year and went out as age twos,” he said.

“The Skilak system is one that produces primarily age one smolt,” he said, “and when the smolt stay an additional year, that ends up having more competition with the age zeros that will go out as age ones.

“When you see a significant shift in the age structure of your juvenile fish that are rearing in the lake that is outside of what they normally do, that means that something has caused that.”

Shields said that repeated over-escapement is likely not producing maximum sustained yield in the Kenai River.

The problem is exacerbated by warm summers, which increase glacial runoff and cause increased turbidity in the lakes, which decreases the depth of light penetration and inhibits the growth of phytoplankton that feed the zooplankton that feed smolt.

Shields said that the summer of 2013 was quite warm and turbidity in Skilak Lake, the primary rearing lake for Kenai River sockeye, was high.

“All spring and summer the lake had less light penetration and thus was less productive, primarily because of the warm summer.”

Management of the run will undoubtedly be challenging due to a weaker than normal sockeye and coho run expected in the Susitna drainage.

The Susitna forecast is for 264,000 sockeye, down dramatically from the 461,000 that returned in 2013, and well below the 20 year average of 430,000.

Shields said the Susitna is notoriously difficult to forecast, and thus to manage due to a lack of smolt data and only having adult information from three of the many lakes.

“You don’t end up with nearly as clean a model as you have for Kenai and Kasilof,” he said.

The management plan takes into account the Susitna River being a stock of yield concern, with mandatory restrictions to the drift fleet and Northern District setnetters, but it is hard to know in-season if that plan is working, because it can be two to three weeks between when those fish pass the drift fleet and when they make it to the weir on the lakes.

“If our data indicates in-season that the restrictions that are in the plan aren’t enough, then we would take additional restrictions,” Shields said.

He added that although some individual lakes may have fallen short, drainage-wide the escapement goals have been met five out of the past five years.

The forecast for 2014 and the summary of the 2013 season can be found at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fishingCommercial.main.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries held an emergency meeting via teleconference last week and voted unanimously to recind a fishery they had just created at the statewide Pacific cod meeting in October.

The seine fishery for Atka mackerel in state waters was proposed by board chair Karl Johnstone to provide economic opportunity for boats in the Aleutian Islands, specifically Adak. 

The quota was set at 10 percent of the federal TAC, and a decision needed to be made before the Dec. 9 North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting, otherwise the Council would have had to adjust the 2014 federal TAC to accommodate the state-waters fishery.

The emergency meeting was requested by the Adak Community Development Corporation, in a letter saying that while they appreciated the BOF attempting to provide opportunity for Adak, it appeared the costs would outweigh the benefits.

The problems with the fishery, according to ACDC, stem from the possible impact on a Biological Opinion being prepared by NMFS Protected Resource division on Stellar sea lions.

As part of that process, NMFS will consider the cumulative effects of  “reasonably foreseeable activities,” including the seine fishery, on sea lions.

Oil-rich Atka mackerel is a high-value feed for the endangered sea lions, and in the most recent environmental impact statement showed up in their scat 93 percent of the time in summer and 61 percent in winter, making the waters where they occur critical habitat for Stellar sea lions.

Because of the broad definition of critical habitat, there has been essentially no pollock fishery in the Aleutians, even though Congress allocated the Aleutian pollock fishery to the Aleut Corporation in 2004 for economic development.

However, a 19,000 ton pollock fishery is being negotiated between NMFS and the Council, at least three miles from sea lion haulouts and ten miles from rookeries.

That potential fishery may have been targeted as an off-set for the effects of the seine fishery on the sea lions.

ACDC said, “We don’t want to risk 19,000 tons of pollock for an as yet unproven 1,600 ton Atka mackerel fishery.”

The areas open to the fishery have difficult conditions for 100-plus foot trawlers, with strong currents and rocky pinnacles on the bottom, so it was questionable how effective 58-foot seiners would have been or how many vessels would have participated.

ACDC added, “...there has not been a presentation of evidence to the Board that a purse seine fishery for Atka mackerel is either technologically or economically feasible.” 

 

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.

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