Because of all the questions around the ability of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to count early and late-run king salmon entering the Kenai River with sonar, in 2012 managers are relying on a number of different indicators to assess the run and how to base management decisions aimed at further conserving king salmon or expanding fishing opportunity.
We just experienced watching this process during the early-run of Kenai River king salmon. ADFG has a new sonar unit called Didson which allows them to see actual fish, but still falls short of enabling them to estimate total in-river return. The Department also uses a test netting program and a creel census. During the late run another tool for assessing king salmon abundance becomes available. That is the commercial harvest of king salmon by the set net fishery. This tool will be very important in 2012 because of the length of time that this data has been collected.
The in-river sport fishery is already restricted by an Emergency Order prohibiting the use of bait and no retention above the Soldotna Bridge. These restrictions effectively remove about 50% of the sport fishery’s harvest potential, which should lead to an intense focus on how many harvested kings will be reported in the set net fishery.
There have always been questions regarding the accuracy of the reported commercial set net harvest but never before has this indicator of abundance had more importance. If large catches are reported–catches much larger than those estimated for the sport fishery–there should be a public outcry. On the other hand, if very low catches are reported then additional restrictions are likely for both the sport and commercial fisheries.