Status of Kenai River Early-Run King Salmon
We have now reached the normal run midpoint when inseason run projections can be made with some degree of confidence. Sonar counts at Kenai River Mile 14 indicate that this year’s run is substantially greater than the poor preseason forecast and will be a substantial improvement over record low numbers of the last three years.
Early-run Kenai kings are managed for an optimum spawning escapement (OEG) of 5,300-9,000 fish. The pre-season outlook was only 5,206 kings based on numbers and age composition of fish observed in previous years. This forecast of less than the OEG led ADFG to close fishing for the early run prior to the scheduled season.
Therefore, the Kenai was opened to catch and release fishing for early-run king salmon by emergency order beginning June 4. Fishing was allowed from the mouth upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake (except for areas at the mouths of Slikok Creek, Funny River and Killey River). This is the first time since 2013 that fishing has been allowed in the Kenai early run. This is also the first time since 2011 that fishing on the early run has been allowed in the middle river between the Soldotna bridge and Skilak Lake. This is an important milestone because the middle river comprises 60% of the total river miles historically open to fishing for king salmon.
ADFG makes estimates fishing effort and harvest based on daily angler counts and interviews along the river. This “creel census” is showing that people are out there fishing but that effort levels under the catch-and-release regulation are very low compared to years past.
As of June 13, ADFG has estimated that 6,080 early-run king salmon have passed the sonar unit at River Mile 14. Approximately 65% of those fish are estimated to be 34 inches in length or greater. This is a relatively strong age class representation. At the normal midpoint of the early run, current sonar counts project to a total run for 2016 of at least 8,000-9,000 fish with a possibility of just over 10,000 (depending on whether the run timing is average or early by a day or two). These numbers will easily reach or exceed the OEG.
The Department must now decide whether to remain at catch and release or allow a limited harvest. A limited harvest scenario would likely include a prohibition on the use of bait, the slot limit (retention of king salmon only less than 42”) and retention allowed only downstream of Slikok Creek. The middle river might remain open to catch and release only under this scenario or be closed to fishing for king salmon until July 15 when most early-run fish are either in the tributaries or the tributary sanctuaries. This scenario would likely result in a harvest of approximately 1,000 king salmon.
Assessment of current numbers and the Kenai River Early-Run Management Plan will guide the ADFG’s decision process over the remainder of the season. A change in management from catch and release to limited harvest could occur as soon as this coming weekend (June 17, 18, 19).
A big remaining question is how ADFG will begin the fishery for late-run Kenai River king salmon which officially begins on July 1. We expect a decision on this issue to be announced by June 27.
The Kenai late-run is managed for a Sustainable Escapement Goal range of 15,000 – 30,000. The preseason outlook is for a total run of approximately 30,000 late-run Kenai River king salmon. This run size might require fishery restrictions to ensure that the escapement goal is met. Management of the sport fishery for late-run king salmon is “paired” by regulation with management of the commercial set net fishery along Kenai Peninsula beaches (also called the East Side Set Net Fishery or ESSN) . If the sport fishery in the river is restricted to fishing without the use of bait, then the ESSN is limited to no-more-than 36 hours per week. We will be talking more about this in subsequent posts but know that this will be an important decision point and check back for further commentary.