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Managing early-run king salmon in the Kenai River is great practice for managing the late-run – make the most out of it.

June 12th, 2012

Both the early and late runs of king salmon bound back to the Kenai River are managed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) under plans adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) back in the late 1980’s. These plans were designed and adopted into regulation at that time specifically because ADFG came to the BOF with reports summarizing their efforts to use sonar to count king salmon. Members of the KRSA fishery staff were in attendance at those meetings and at each meeting since. The paradigm embodied in the fishery management plans established then and utilized through 2011 was that of a checking account with a minimum balance requirement. Fish were counted into the river with the split-beam sonar (deposits) and subtracted (withdrawals) by the sport fishery as determined by the creel census. The escapement objective was likened to the minimum balance requirement.

We all know that this paradigm fell apart in 2011 when reliance on split-beam sonar came “into question” (a mild way to state that) and is not in use in 2012. So, what is now being used to assure minimum escapement levels are being achieved and how does what we have going on this year relate to those very specific plans, which rely entirely on the notion that we can count king salmon with sonar? These are the questions that strike at the heart of the matter.

A short background for anglers in the public who care about these things: ADFG has at least three fairly powerful assessment tools operating at this time (early-run), a new sonar unit called Didson, a test netting program and a creel census. During the late-run a fourth important tool becomes available, the commercial catch in the east-side set net fishery. Analysis of these tools gives ADFG four or five data sets to look at through the course of the runs. Check out the Department’s website for Kenai River king salmon at www.adfg.alaska.gov/sf/FishCounts/index.cfm?ADFG=main.kenaiChinook – they did a good job of designing this information portal.

The codified management plans speak to achieving a specific number of spawners and no less. “Seeing” that specific number can no longer be done with any degree of certainty but ADFG must still manage for sustained yield as dictated by the State Constitution. KRSA fishery staff has had a number of very informative discussions with ADFG staff and we have a pretty good understanding of how decisions will be made in 2012. KRSA fishery staff is pretty comfortable with the assessment and decision processes as we have come to understand them but here’s what causes us great concern:

Without the checkbook paradigm for early and late-run Kenai River king salmon, ADFG is operating “outside” of the codified management plans that govern these fisheries, both for sport and commercial. The 2012 early-run already looks to be in trouble. Pre-season expectation for the late-run is below average. KRSA strongly urges the Commercial fishery management staff to work closely with their Sport Fish colleagues and use the early-run as practice looking at the king salmon assessment and decision process.

The last thing we want is to sit here a month from now in the heat of July, see that the abundance of the late-run Kenai River king salmon assessed to be too low to support normal sport, personal use and commercial fisheries, with four million sockeye salmon rushing toward the Kenai River and the management staff from the two divisions coming up with divergent assessments of what it takes to sustain late-run Kenai River king salmon or even the Sport Fish staff diverging significantly from the methodology used for the early-run Kenai River king salmon when only sport fishing opportunity was at stake. The time for good communications between these two fishery management divisions and with the public is now.

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