Wrap-up: This year’s stout 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 percent of the fish were greater than 750mm (34 inches total length) 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 percent of the waters normally open to fishing for king salmon in the Kenai located upstream of the Bridge this was an important improvement over recent years.
Issues: Management plan provisions are contrary to plan goals and have produced undesirable unintended consequences.
KRSA recommendation: Revise the management to achieve to following goals.
Establish a “step-up” regulatory strategy that replaces the slot limit with an effective but precautionary alternative:
Early July sport and commercial fisheries were 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 was initially limited to a single hook, no bait regulation.
Following strong king counts through the first week of July, the sport fishery was liberalized by allowing use of bait in the lower river downstream from the Slikok Creek sanctuary. Sport anglers enjoyed much improved fishing for kings throughout the rest of the season in comparison with the last few years of poor returns and sever restriction. The creel survey harvest estimate of 6,500 kings downstream from the Soldotna Bridge was the highest seen since 2009. With the stronger run, harvest was also allowed above the bridge for the first time in several years.
Early season numbers proved overly-optimistic as the run was ultimately four days early. Both counts and projections fell off considerably later in the season. Declining late season numbers were exacerbated by a spreadsheet error in sonar count corrections discovered at the end of July. Final sonar counts of 22,535 and produced an escapement in the lower half of the 15,000 to 30,000 sustainable goal range after harvest of a few thousand kings upstream was considered.
The late season drop off in king numbers highlighted the wisdom of the precautionary strategy of early season sport fishery restrictions. This strategy paid off by banking fish toward escapement, increasing in-river fishing opportunity, and avoiding king-related disruptions in sport, commercial and personal use fisheries during later July.
Issues: While numbers of late-run king salmon rebounded this year somewhat from the recent period of historic lows KRSA believes that we are not “out of the woods” yet. KRSA strongly supports the paired restrictions found in the current management plan as valuable tools to conserve late-run king salmon and share the burden of conservation somewhat equally between the sport, personal use and set net fisheries, for times when escapements fall in the lower half of the escapement range.
There remains significant difficulty for the ADFG to estimate the number of late-run king salmon. The most difficult task is to estimate the number of fish less than 34 inches total length since fish of this size cannot be identified as king salmon when mixed with sockeye by the sonar counter. As a consequence, the ADFG conducts test netting to sort out the species mix of smaller fish. One course of action that could address this issue is to simply establish a large fish goal for management. The current 15,000 – 30,000 escapement goal for Kenai River late-run kings salmon could be converted for management purposes to fish over 34 inches total length. There are a number of critical issues and complex variables around a conversion like this and the KRSA fisheries staff will be in close communication with the ADFG staff should this idea move forward.
Kings are designated primarily for sport fish use and the fishery benefits from larger numbers of fish in the river in the upper range of the new goal. The top end of the new SEG for Kenai late-run king salmon (30,000) is less than the historical average escapement (37,000). When escapements are projected to exceed the upper end of the SEG but still fall within the range of historical average no management action in addition to the normal fishing regulatory regime should be taken to further reduce the escapement.
Historical late-run Kenai River king salmon escapement data
Paired restrictions ensure that the conservation burden for Kenai king salmon is shared equally among sport, personal use and set gillnet fisheries during periods of low king abundance, with a trigger of 22,500 fish.
The current SEG is 15,000 – 30,000. The proposed upper goal of 40,000 includes the historical average escapement and maintains high production and yield according the Department’s recent escapement goal analysis. Returns from all historical escapements between up to 40,000 exceeded replacement. Increasing the upper goal range does not meaningfully effect on future returns or yield because there is no significant correlation of returns to escapement for escapements between 22,500 and 40,000.
The year started with great optimism but ended with numbers just above the recent average of 3.6 million for Kenai sockeye. The forecast was big (4.7 million) and early sonar counts were strong. But the run faded as it should have been peaking.
The mid-point of this year’s run at the sonar was July 22 – exactly average as early and late counts balanced around a weak middle. Counts were supposedly corrected for large numbers of pink salmon late in the year but August counts exhibited an odd stable pattern in early August when Sockeye numbers typically decline.
Through much of July, commercial fisheries were managed for the upper management plan tier (runs greater than 4.6 million) with an in-river goal at the sonar of 1.1 to 1.35 million sockeye. The final posted sonar count was just over that range at 1.38 million sockeye. However, this count exceeded the goal range of 1.0 – 1.2 million for runs between 2.3 and 4.6 million. The final escapement will probably be around a million or so after subtracting harvest above the sonar – right in the middle of the optimal escapement goal range (0.7 – 1.4 million).
Issues: In current practice, the management objective for Kenai sockeye (the in-river sonar goal) for the commercial fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet is clearly the most important management objective that exists in Cook Inlet. Kenai sockeye can comprise 4-5 million of a total of 6 million sockeye that move through the Inlet. This stock is clearly the 800-pound gorilla in the living room. If the ADFG estimates that there will be a run of 5 million sockeye to the Kenai and the wish to hold the spawning escapement to 1 million then management must exploit this stock at a rate of 80% to hit the target. A harvest rate this high is unsustainable for all other stocks and species of importance to sport and personal use fisheries in the Inlet.
This year’s counts highlight the current discrepancy in the in-river goals relative to the escapement goals. A sonar count exceeding the highest in-river goal range produces escapements in the middle of the goal range. This is contrary to explicit direction in the Kenai Late-Run Sockeye Management Plan to distribute escapement evenly within the OEG range in proportion to abundance. This discrepancy is the result of failure to update in-river goal ranges for current levels of Sockeye sport harvest above the sonar during the Bendix/Didson sonar change over at the 2011 Board of Fisheries (BOF) meeting. ADFG has submitted a proposal to the BOF for necessary revisions at the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting to address this error in regulation. KRSA has also submitted a proposal to address this issue.
KRSA recommendation: The ADFG and the BOF should first carefully review the escapement goals for Kenai sockeye salmon. The current Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) of 700,000-1,200,000 and Optimum Escapement Goal (OEG) of 700,000-1,400,000 are significantly lower than goals for similar systems in other parts of the state, particularly Bristol Bay. After an evaluation of the SEG and OEG the Board must incorporate the harvest of the sport fishery upstream of the sonar counter in such a manner as to allow for escapements to fall within the full width of the escapement goal. This is the most important issue coming before the BOF during the upcoming meeting on Upper Cook Inlet.
Kasilof Sockeye, like the Kenai, came in well below the forecast of 861 thousand. Strong early counts led to an early commercial opening of the set net fishery but, like the Kenai, run strength flattened through the normal peak. Run projections steadily fell over the course of the season from initial high levels. The final sonar count was just 241,000 which is the lowest in 13 years but squarely in the middle of the sustainable escapement goal range of 160 to 340,000.
Issues: Kasilof area commercial fisheries continue to be operated with little regard for impacts on Kasilof king salmon for which no escapement goals or inseason monitoring is in place.
KRSA recommendation: Ensure that precautionary measures are included in the Kasilof management River Salmon Management Plan to protect sustainability of Kasilof late-run kings. These include windows, EO limits and restrictions on excessive use of the Kasilof River special harvest area.
This year’s commercial fishery management was generally successful in ensuring that Kenai Chinook and sockeye escapement goals were achieved, commercial fisheries had ample opportunity to harvest fish across the peak of the run, and sockeye harvest was shared about equally between drift gill net and set gill net fisheries. Total commercial harvest in the Central District was about 2.3 million sockeye.
Commercial set gill netters might complain about limited use of available Emergency Order authority during the latter half of July. However, while the Kenai in-river goal was exceeded, escapement was in the middle of the SEG and OEG ranges as is appropriate for an average run.
Commercial drift gillnetters might complain about frequent use of the expanded Kenai and Kasilof sections as prescribed by the Central District Drift Gillnet Fishery Management Plan. However, this plan worked exactly as designed to provide sockeye harvest opportunity while limiting harvest of sport priority coho and providing a corridor in the middle of the inlet to pass Susitna sockeye and coho north.
Personal use and sport fisheries for sockeye in the Kenai River were uneven at best as influxes of fish were inconsistent across the season. Commercial fishing was aggressive during mid-July as an early run timing front loaded numbers in the river and managers were expecting a large run to come. The commercial fishing power is so great that they can harvest the large majority of sockeye moving through the Inlet at any given point in time. This effort is consistent with a commercial priority for sockeye but substantially reduced in-river fishing opportunities.
Issues: Over the course of the season, there were three instances where management plans were liberally interpreted or set aside for the benefit of the commercial fisheries. In all case, both commercial benefits and in-river impact ultimately proved too marginal to justify the corresponding actions.
The first instance was the early opener of the Kasilof set net fishery. For the first time ever, this opener occurred when 50,000 Sockeye were projected to pass the sonar before June 25 as opposed to actually being counted at the sonar. While Kasilof Sockeye regularly exceeded the escapement goals in recent years, they came nowhere close to doing so during 2016.
The second instance was when paired restrictions for Kenai king salmon were not followed during the first week of July. Use of bait was restricted in the sport fishery but the east side commercial set net fishery was exceeded 36 hours of fishing time per week. A lot of confusion surrounded the basis for this outcome but it was ultimately explained as appropriate on account of the sport fishery restrictions were not based on an in-river run projection of 22,500 as identified in the management plan.
The third instance was clearly the most out-of-plan action seen this year. Set nets are limited to 36 hours when the in-river run of less than 22,500 is projected as it was during the first week of August. Set nets were fished for 62 hours – an overage of 26 hours.
Out-of-plan actions by ADFG are troubling because of their allocation effects. Management plans are developed by the BOF with a consideration of allocation tradeoffs. Departures from these plans for the benefit of commercial fisheries are simply inappropriate unless necessary to meet established escapement goals.
KRSA Recommendations: Either correct the error that exists in regulation around Kenai sockeye salmon in-river goals as described above or remove Kenai Late-Run sockeye in-river goals from the list of justifications for going outside established management plans. In-river goals are allocative, not biological goals.
Coho salmon harvest in the commercial fishery was generally lower than the recent average as were counts at the few northern inlet weirs where coho are assessed. Anecdotal reports also indicate that coho fishing success has been spotty. More complete assessments will need to wait until all of this year’s numbers are crunched.