This year’s strong rebound shows this stock to be much more resilient than many naysayers would have us believe. This run was both early and strong relative to the preseason forecast. A total run of about 10,000 was double the 5,200 forecast. With a sonar estimate of 9,851 at River Mile 14, the optimum escapement goal range of 5,300 – 9,000 will be readily achieved or exceeded after accounting for harvest above the sonar. Approximately 60% of the fish are greater than 750mm (30 inches) in length which is good. Conservative early season management has also allowed fishery managers to extend fishing opportunity for kings into the middle river upstream from the Soldotna Bridge for the first time in years. With 60% of the waters normally open to fishing for king salmon in the Kenai located upstream of the Bridge this is an important improvement over recent years.
The early July sport and commercial fisheries are being managed conservatively due to recent low numbers and uncertain forecasts. A run forecast of 30,000 late-run Kenai kings is not sufficient to ensure that the minimum escapement goal of 15,000 is achieved with a normal sport fishery and commercial fishing on a potentially large Kenai sockeye run. The sport fishery has been limited to a single hook, no bait regulation. The commercial set net fishery is initially expected not to use all of the hours allocated in the management plans – last week just 48 of the 72 allocated Kasilof plan hours were used. This precautionary management will increase flexibility as the season progresses. If good early July king counts continue, expect to see liberalization of sport and commercial fisheries over the next week.
Over the past week we have seen the ADFG issue an Emergency Order putting the paired restriction provisions of the Late-Run King Plan in place as a result of projecting an in-river run of less than 22,500 fish. Use of bait was restricted in the sport fishery and the east side commercial set net fishery was limited to not-more-than 36 hours of fishing time per week. A few days later the ADFG issued another E.O. rescinding the earlier E.O. but keeping the bait prohibition in place. Restrictions on the commercial fishery were lifted but the narrative that accompanied the second E.O. talked about not using all of the set net time available.
Many folks rightfully asked, ”What just happened?” The preseason outlook was for 30,000 fish. To determine whether the restrictive provisions of the King Plan should be in place, the ADFG must project (guess) how many kings will be taken in the commercial fishery and the marine sport fishery. Projecting is difficult and depending upon the methods used can produce variable results. The first method the ADFG used produced an estimate of in-river run of just under the 22,500 trigger. Further analysis of how many of the allowed set net hours might actually be used and how many commercially caught kings would be of Kasilof origin produced an in-river run estimate of more like 24,000. So why did the bait restriction stay in place? Well, good question. With the commercial fishery off the hook with the projection of 24,000 in-river, the sport fishery still must be managed to achieve the escapement objective of more than 15,000. The ADFG worried that a sport fishery with bait allowed from the beginning to end of the fishery would jeopardize their ability to achieve the minimum escapement so the bait restriction remained in place at least for now. Early sonar counts are good and this decision will be re-evaluated almost daily.
The Kasilof area setnet fishery opened early due to good early sockeye counts in the sonar. Through Monday July 4, this fishery harvested 95,000 Sockeye and brought the sonar count back on track for the middle of the optimum escapement goal range.
Kenai sockeye numbers have gotten off to a strong early start with a total forecast of 4.7 million. Good numbers of sockeye are also beginning to show in the offshore drift gillnet fishery. The Kenai setnet season is scheduled to begin with the regular opener on Monday July 11 but more big counts might lead to an earlier opener this weekend.