This year’s record low return of Kenai kings has led to unprecedented closures of the king salmon sport fishery and the commercial east side set net salmon fishery, and prohibition of king retention in the personal use fishery.
Even with these unprecedented closures, it is highly unlikely that the minimum escapement goal for Kenai kings will be met. With 65% of the run completed as of July 22, just 7,909 fish have been counted at the new Didson sonar and the return is tracking to be the worst on record. ADFG has indicated that it will take a “wall of kings” entering the river to come anywhere near the minimum goal of 17,800 specified in the Kenai River Late-run King Salmon Management Plan.
Every king counts when the minimum escapement goal is not going to be achieved, which is why fishery management plans call for closure of fisheries when minimum escapements will not be met. During the early-run Kenai River king salmon return in June, a series of step down measures were enacted to achieve king salmon savings. These included no bait, area closures to retention, catch and release, and finally closure to all king sport fishing after the call was made mid-season that the minimum escapement goal was not going to be met. The estimated sport harvest of early-run kings is approximately 300, with an additional catch and release mortality estimate of less than 30. Weir estimates on the Kenai River tributaries – the Killey and the Funny – indicate that approximately 2,200 kings went up to the primary spawning grounds for early-run Kenai River kings. The escapement goal for the early-run is 4,000 to 9,000 kings.
The July sport fishery for late-run Kenai kings started with a precautionary no-bait restriction, which saved approximately 100 of the 1,157 late-run kings that entered the river through July 10. ADFG estimated that only 103 kings were harvested by the sport fishery during this period. Fishing effort and catches plummeted after July 10 when the sport fishery was further restricted to catch and release. From July 10-18, catch and release mortality likely impacted less than a couple dozen kings. With the severe restrictions in 2012, total sport fishery mortality of late-run kings in the Kenai River has been reduced to less than 150 fish. Closure of the river to king fishing from July 19 for the remainder of the 2012 season likely saved an additional 50-150 fish that might otherwise have been lost to catch and release mortality.
To conserve king salmon, the commercial east side set net (ESSN) fishery has been open for only one regular opener during the late-run Kenai River sockeye season. On July 16, the ESSN fished for 12 hours, harvesting 67,000 sockeye and 265 kings. It has not reopened since. The other commercial gear group, the central district drift gillnet fishery, has been fishing daily and as of July 22 has harvested 2.2 million sockeye and 147 kings. The extremely low harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon by the drift fleet is the reason they remain open as a commercial fishery this season during this time of unprecedented king salmon conservation measures.
To date in 2012, ADFG has managed both the early-run and late-run Kenai River king salmon seasons with the directive that every king counts. Painful but necessary restrictions have been enacted in June and July for every major harvester of king salmon of Kenai River origin. The Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan ends on July 31. However, in August, fishery data shows that 10 to 16 percent of late-run Kenai kings return to the river. This represents between 1,780 to 2,850 kings of the minimum escapement goal of 17,800 spawners. This leads to the question of how is ADFG going to manage the end of the commercial sockeye season this year in August?
Last year, after July restrictions to both the in-river sport fishery and the ESSN for king salmon conservation purposes, ADFG opened the ESSN for four days during the first week of August to “mop up” the end of the sockeye salmon run. During those four days in the first week of August, 2011, the ESSN fishery harvested 63,554 sockeye and 630 kings. These are similar numbers to the harvest by the ESSN fishery during its one regular opener this July, only with more kings taken last year in August. So while the King Salmon Management Plan is not in effect during August, the need to conserve king salmon remains just as important in August as it has been in June and July. At this stage when all indicators point to the fact that the minimum escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon is not going to be met this year, every king counts and is important. The department agrees and states that is why they have enacted the closures in June and July, but what will happen on Aug. 1?
KRSA had the opportunity to meet with ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell, Commercial Fish Director Jeff Regnart and Sport Fish Director Charlie Swanton during their visit to the Kenai on Monday, July 23 to meet with various user groups. At this point in the season, ADFG officials state that they are taking a wait and see approach to what will occur in August regarding fishing time for the ESSN fishery. Fishery management decisions in Alaska are made on a daily basis depending on what is happening on a daily basis in the fishery. However, with each passing day and still no signs of achieving anywhere near the minimum escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon, it seems highly unlikely that ADFG will allow the ESSN fishery to go back in the water on August 1 to “mop up” sockeye when such action would have a considerable impact on king salmon harvest. Since ADFG managed in June and July with the belief and intended goal of “every king counts” then that should also be their mantra in the month of August.
KRSA will continue to closely monitor this situation on a daily basis, just as ADFG does, since based on current run figures with only seven days left in July it is highly unlikely that the minimum king escapement will be met. Just because the calendar will turn over to August in a week doesn’t mean those kings swimming to the spawning beds are any less important than those that were protected two months prior. This year, every king counts regardless of when they enter the river.