The Fish are in Charge
This year’s Kenai Sockeye run proves the truth of an old adage once again. Science and data give us best estimates of what will happen and is happening in any year. But at the end of the day, salmon are notoriously unpredictable and the art in management comes from in-season adjustments based on what this year’s fish have decided to do. There is never an average season with no surprises and this year is no different.
Current Kenai Sockeye numbers give every indication that the run will fall well short of the preseason forecast of 4.7 million. All indicators are currently showing signs that we are on the tail end of this run. Commercial Sockeye harvests have fallen off considerably over the last week.
We could still see an abnormally late influx of Kenai Sockeye as occurred in 2014 and 2015. However, the chances of this happening are smaller and smaller every day as we move through the first week of August.
Kenai Sockeye counts perked up at the end of last week but this was due to commercial fishing on only one of five days from Tuesday through Sunday. Counting sockeye will get more challenging this year as we move into August due to a big run of pink salmon moving past the sonar counter.An official run downgrade has not been announced but the commercial fishery is being managed conservatively over the last week as ADF&G assessed what happened to a million missing Kenai sockeye. If the actual run is falls between 2.3 and 4.6 million Sockeye, the in-river goal as measured at the sonar is reduced from 1.10 – 1.35 million to 1.00 – 1.20 M Sockeye. With almost 1 million sockeye counted through Tuesday at the Kenai sonar, the lower end of the new goal range will easily be reached and we could be looking at going over the top end of the in-river goal range by the end of the week, particularly if many of the missing Sockeye materialize. While in-river goals might be exceeded, Sockeye escapements will remain comfortably within the current Optimal Escapement Goal range.
Kenai Late Run Sockeye
Kasilof sockeye remain on track to fall in the middle of the current escapement goal range of 160 to 340 thousand. The sonar count through Tuesday was 210,514 at the normal 90% point in the run. Kasilof Sockeye are typically earlier timed than Kenai sockeye but much more spread out.
Counting Fish is Hard
At the normal 70% point in the run, 17,215 late-run kings were estimated to have passed the Kenai sonar through Monday August 1. However, a spreadsheet error has apparently caused ADF&G to overestimate sonar counts by 1,900 through July 26. The error occurred in the formula expanding big fish counts at the sonar for small fish that cannot be distinguished in the sonar from sockeye. At the same time counts have fallen off despite lower commercial fishing effort. It now appears that run timing this year was early. The combination of these three factors means that run projections have steadily decreased over the last two weeks to the point where an escapement is projected to fall below 22,500 kings given sport harvest above the sonar.Kenai late-run kings will easily meet the sustainable escapement goal of 15,000-30,000 but projected escapements in the lower half of this range trigger limitations on commercial setnet fishing time in August. Sport and personal use harvest of Kenai kings are now closed.
While the sonar estimate error was unfortunate, it is not apparent that it caused any of the fisheries to be managed any differently than they otherwise would have been with more accurate numbers.
This year’s final management challenge will be in what to do if Kenai Sockeye are headed over the in-river goal but Kenai late-run kings are not projected to exceed the 22,500 benchmark for escapement identified in the management plan. The Kenai Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan limits the commercial set gillnet fishery to 36 hours per week from August 1-15 when King escapement is projected to be less than 22,500. Ample opportunity was afforded by the management plans to harvest sockeye across the peak of the run in July. The set net fishery has already caught almost 6,000 king salmon and will continue to harvest significant numbers during August. KRSA believes that commercial fishery management in August should follow the 36-hour weekly limit on east side set net fishing time so as not to erode the benefits of precautionary king management earlier in the season.