After four days of dwindling late run king salmon counts on the Kenai River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Tuesday that anglers would be restricted to catch-and-release and trophy king salmon fishing through the rest of the season.
Beginning Thursday, any king between 20 inches and 55 inches in size may not be retained or removed from the water and must be released immediately, according to a Fish and Game emergency order.
Assistant area management biologist Jason Pawluk said the impetus for the closure was a “precipitous drop” in sonar estimates of king salmon in the river.
“During a period of time when we should be seeing large number of king salmon entering the Kenai River, we are not,” he said. “They’ve dropped faster than we really had anticipated and we’ve seen this trend since about July 15, we’ve seen our projections slowly go down.”
To track the estimated final escapement of chinook salmon in the river, biologists are using indices including run timing projections and harvest data in commercial fisheries to estimate the final inriver sonar count of the fish.
“All of those models are projecting a sonar estimate or what we call an inriver run that — with the harvest to date and any future projected harvest — would not meet the current escapement goal minimum of 15,000,” Pawluk said.
Shortly after the sport fish division released its emergency order, the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game announced a closure of the next regular fishing periods for east side set gillnet fishermen in Cook Inlet.
Citing low numbers of Kenai River king salmon, the order limits the setnetters to no more than one 12-hour fishing period per Sunday through Saturday management week.
The restriction is a new one for setnetters who were largely closed out of fishing in 2012 when the Kenai River king salmon fishery was closed; the idea came from discussions between local fishermen about how to pair restrictions between sport and commercial fisheries at times when king salmon are not available in large numbers.
In the current management plan, there are no restrictions required of the east side setnet fishery when the Kenai River is put on catch-and-release fishing.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries and a special task force created for the Cook Inlet discussed paired restrictions between the commercial setnet fishermen and inriver sportfishinge extensively over the winter and while they group could not arrive at a consensus on what those restrictions should be, one of the options that was discussed was limiting setnetters to fewer hours during the week.
Fish and Game managers took their cue from that discussion when considering how to limit harvest of Kenai-bound king salmon in commercial setnet fisheries, said Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game.
“The department is choosing to use this as it is the best thing we could come up with that would be fair and equitable,” he said. Setnetters have harvested about 300 king salmon per fishing period, Shields said.
Mike Fenton, who co-owns Fenton Brother’s Guided Sportfishing in Sterling, said he was not surprised by the restriction and thought it should have happened earlier in the season.
“The fishing has been fair at best this season and our numbers have been so low that I think the majority of sportsmen, guides and private anglers would like to err on the side of conservation,” Fenton said. “I’d like to think that our brothers in the commercial fishing industry would step up and help conserve these kings as well."
Fenton said he and his brother educated many of clients about the volatility of the king salmon fishery, especially during the last two weeks of the season.
“We kind of prepare them for possible regulation changes and most of the clients were aware of that. It’s not a big surprise,” Fenton said. “I think the majority of our clients are going to stick with the king fishing, some may jump over and do some sockeye fishing.”
While anglers can still retain jack-kings, or those under 20-inches long, any fishermen lucky enough to land a king salmon in the 55-inches or larger category is required by law to get it sealed at the Fish and Game office within three days of the catch.
None have been registered in at least three years, Pawluk said.
Fenton said he hoped the restriction would help the famed Kenai king salmon rebound.
“I think these are such a prized fish that I hate to see any of us killing them, either inriver or in the commercial nets. Our escapement numbers have been marginal at best for several years and with the declining fish size, which has been a trend for several years, I am afraid that we are losing the unique genetic gene pool that the Kenai is world famous for,” he said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.