2012 Late-run Kenai River king salmon – Update, Timeline and Important Considerations

By July 13, typically 25% of the final return of the late-run Kenai River king salmon has entered the river. At this point of the return, what does the in-season assessment tell us? How will the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) react to evaluation of the data? What will be the justification for ADFG’s potential management actions?

On July 8 ADFG justified restricting the sportfishery to catch and release beginning July 10 with the following statement:

To date all indices used to assess the late-run are very low, well below average, and are currently projected to be well under the inseason management objectives at the end of the run in early August. All of this information used in combination indicates the 2012 run is smaller than the 2011 run and may be the lowest on record.

When summarizing the situation on the web update provided July 10, ADFG stated:

The department is continuing to examine further in-season restrictive actions in a step-down manner to administer during the remainder of July to ensure adequate escapement of Kenai River king salmon. The next step is to close the Kenai River to king salmon fishing and could be announced as soon as Friday, July 13.

On July 11 an Emergency Order issued by ADFG closed a regular period in the commercial set net fishery that was justified by the following statement:

As of July 11, all indices used to assess in-river abundance of Kenai River king salmon indicate a run that is well below average. In-season projections show all indices will not achieve their respective minimum in-season management objective. Closing the regularly scheduled fishing period for set gillnets in the Upper Subdistrict on Thursday, July 12 is intended to pass king salmon into the Kenai River.

ADFG salmon fishery managers in Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) typically like to access the first 25% of a return of salmon, particularly king salmon, before making management calls that dramatically affect the fishery. With the low numbers of king salmon returning throughout UCI and much of the state this year, ADFG sportfish managers took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the use of bait in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers prior to the start of the late-run of July kings. The ADFG quotes posted above summarize the accessment of run strength gathered from ADFG indices as the 2012 return has presented itself on the beaches of UCI and in the Kenai River.

We now find ourselves at that 25% point in the 2012 return and undoubtedly ADFG finds itself facing a number of very tough choices. Five factors that will receive significant consideration by ADFG are:

1. The abundance of late-run Kenai River king salmon as observed in ADFG’s four assessment tools;
2. The utility of catch and release as a management tool for the king salmon sportfishery;
3. The effectiveness of the UCI drift gillnet fleet utilizing additional fishing time in the new expanded corridor that concentrates harvests on Kenai and Kasilof sockeye;
4. The abundance of sockeye salmon along the beaches and in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers; and
5. The harvest potential of a liberalized personal use dipnet fishery and in-river sport fishery for sockeye salmon.

KRSA professional fishery staff has been in numerous conversations with ADFG managers of both the sport and commercial fish division, and senior Department staff over the past 36 hours. Based on the in-season data and assessment of this data provided by ADFG and our conversations with area, regional and senior staff we believe the remainder of the 2012 season could go down one or more of three paths. These are:

1) Total closure of both the inriver sportfishery and much or all of the commercial set net fishery for the remainder of the late-run Kenai River king salmon return.

2) Keeping the inriver sportfishery restricted to catch and release for a few more days in an effort to make sure that we are not experiencing very late timing of a run that is, in fact, much larger than currently anticipated. Under this scenario we could expect to see some level of commercial set net fishing while additional data is collected. Under this scenario after a few more days, not more than a week, enough data would be collected to make a definitive decision to either close both the sport and commercial set net fisheries or allow the fisheries to continue because ADFG anticipates meeting the minimum escapement objective for Kenai River king salmon.

3) ADFG may conclude that achieving the minimum escapement objective for late-run Kenai River king salmon will most likely not be achieved but that too much economic value is at stake to implement a total closure of the sport and commercial set net fisheries. Under this scenario ADFG would continue to allow catch and release in the river while authorizing some level of commercial set net fishing. In making this call ADFG would be clearly operating outside of compliance with the Late-run Kenai River King Salmon Management Plan which calls for total closure of both fisheries when minimum escapement will not be achieved.

However, there are valid arguments that can be made for this potential course of action. Mortality in a catch and release fishery in the Kenai River for the remainder of the 2012 season will likely be in the range of 100-200 fish. Biologists consider a small number like this to have a de minimus or negligible effect on the sustainability of the run. Under the current management plan, catch and release can only be implemented to buy time early in the season to allow for additional data to be collected or to slow the harvest in the sport fishery so that the minimum escapement objective can be achieved.

A scenario that envisions the use of catch and release fishing while not being able to project meeting the minimum escapement goal would be a new justification for catch and release of king salmon in the Kenai River. Likewise, if the number of late-run king salmon killed by commercial fishermen can be held to a similar small number while the economic value of the sockeye harvest can be realized then sustainability can still be the goal. That is the concept behind allowing the UCI drift gillnet fleet continue to fish.

In 2011, the UCI drift gillnet fleet harvested 3.2 million sockeye and 500 kings, while the UCI east side set net fishery harvested 1.8 million sockeye and 6,500 kings.

Like most of us concerned about the sustainability of our king salmon resource, KRSA hopes to see a large pulse of late-run king salmon make it into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. This outcome would allow for adequate escapement and the realization of the potential economic value that comes from both sport and commercial fishing. Sadly, the assessment of the 2012 return to date for late-run Kenai River king salmon paints a picture of run failure and not of potential late strength.

ADFG is expected to make an announcement on run strength on Friday, July 13. Stay tuned.