Sufficient numbers of late-run Kenai River king salmon are the key to a successful fishing season for almost everyone in Upper Cook Inlet. Low numbers of these prized fish not only leads to restrictions and closures in the sport fisheries that target them but also to restrictions in the commercial set net fishery that targets sockeye, the economic mainstay of the commercial fishery.
The outlook for the late run of Kenai River Chinook salmon in 2016 is below average, with a forecast total run of approximately 30,011 fish. If realized, this run would be the 5th lowest (26th out of 30 years of record), be comparable to the 2015 run, and would be slightly more than one-half of the 1986–2015 average. The 2016 forecasted run approximates the upper end of the sustainable escapement goal (SEG) of 15,000 – 30,000 fish.
There is much uncertainty in the 2016 forecast estimate. The 80% prediction interval for the total run forecast is 18,201 to 41,823 fish. In 2014, the forecast was for a total run of approximately 19,700 fish while the estimated total run is approximately 18,900 fish, close to the forecast. The 2015 forecast was for a total run of approximately 22,100 fish while the preliminary estimated total run is approximately 32,900 fish, eleven thousand fish more than forecast.
The best way to consider this salmon forecast is in terms of three broad categories: approximately average run, below average run or above average run. The 2016 forecast gives the expectation of a run in the below average category.
The Late-Run Kenai River King Salmon Management Plan calls for paired restrictions in the sport and set net fisheries when the in-river run of kings is projected to be less than 22,500 fish as measured by sonar.
A run of approximately 7.1 million sockeye salmon is forecasted to return to UCI in 2016, with a commercial harvest of 4.1 million. The forecasted commercial harvest in 2016 is 1.1 million greater than the 20-year average harvest.
The run forecast for the Kenai River is approximately 4.7 million, which is 1.0 million greater than the 20-year average run of 3.7 million. The Kasilof River sockeye salmon run forecast is 861,000, which is 13% less than the 20-year average of 987,000. The Susitna River sockeye salmon run forecast is 372,000, which is 12% less than the 10-year average of 421,000.
The commercial set net fishery opens in late June when the projected escapement of sockeye salmon into the Kasilof River is greater than 50,000 fish. By July 8 the set net fishery is fully operational and by regulation continues to fish generally two to five days a week until August 15. During times when the in-river run of late-run king salmon into the Kenai is projected to be less than 22,500 the set net fishery is limited to no more than 36 hours per week.
The juxtaposition of large numbers of Kenai sockeye and below average numbers of late-run Kenai kings is the source of much difficulty in managing the fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet. The Drift Gill net fishery takes few late-run kings but the set net fishery can easily harvest 300+ kings during a normal 12 hour opening. With the potential of over seven weeks of set nets fishing six days a week at 18-hours per day, it is not unlikely that their harvest alone will reduce the total run to a projected in-river run of less than 22,500 fish. The sport fishery in the Kenai River can easily harvest another 5,000+ of these fish, leaving little wiggle room for achieving the minimum escapement of 15,000. Both fisheries running at “normal” strength has the potential to harvest more than half the return.
By no stretch of the imagination are we out of the woods in terms of late-run Kenai River king salmon this year. If ADFG fish managers operate at “normal” out of the gate in early July, there is a good chance that restrictions may be in store during the latter weeks of the month.