ADFG proposes new escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon

The Upper Cook Inlet King Salmon task force met on Monday, January 14 in Kenai to review the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) new draft interim escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon and to further discuss options for king salmon management during times of low abundance. The task force will make recommendations to the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF), which will be discussed at the BOF statewide finfish March meeting in Anchorage. Any action taken by the BOF at its March meeting for management in 2013 will be sunset, so that a more comprehensive approach can be taken at the BOF next regular meeting for Upper Cook Inlet (UCI), scheduled in Anchorage for January 29 through February 11, 2014. The deadline to submit proposals for the 2014 UCI BOF meeting is April 10, 2013.

At the recent task force meeting, ADFG outlined its new draft interim escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon. It is a draft at this time until ADFG receives all comments in its peer-review process, expected to be finalized in February. The new proposal is a sustainable escapement goal (SEG) from 15,000 to 30,000, as a measure of “true abundance.” It is considered interim in nature until a final goal can be established after the Didson sonar is moved upstream above the tidal area. Starting in 2013, ADFG will run a second Didson sonar unit at RM 13. The new interim goal is a reduction of fifteen percent for the lower and upper ends of the range, from the current SEG goal of 17,800 to 35,700. ADFG will calibrate “true abundance” by using Didson sonar and then multiplying counts by a correction factor of 1.31 to account for speculated undercounts of kings in the tidal area at RM 8, making the new range from 11,450 to 22,900 in Didson units.

KRSA will provide ADFG with our analysis of the new proposed SEG for Kenai River king salmon. We have conservation concerns that the new goal will have very significant fishery management implications. Unless the BOF adopts new restrictions on king salmon harvest at low runs, ADFG’s proposed goal will support a substantial increase in fishing rates on record low runs of Kenai kings during a period of declining abundance, uncertain future productivity, and failure of the historical stock assessment methodology. A primary concern for KRSA is that the proposed low end of ADFG’s recommended goal is well below the range of current data. The proposed low end at 15,000 is substantially less than any escapement ever recorded where production has been estimated. The lowest escapement of late-run Kenai River king salmon from which the return is complete was 23,830 in 1997, which is about 4,000 more than the newly proposed estimate of maximum sustained yield (MSY) of 19,930, and nearly 9,000 above the minimum goal of 15,000.

KRSA is especially concerned about the impacts that the lowered Kenai king escapement goal will have on exploitation rates. According to the revised run reconstruction by ADFG, historical exploitation rates in combined commercial, personal use and sport fisheries averaged 39 percent per year from 1986 – 2012. The maximum historical rate was 53 percent, and in only three of the past 27 years did the rate reach or exceed 50 percent. However, with the proposed lowered SEG goal, the exploitation rate at MSY (19,930) in ADFG’s new stock recruitment model is 63 percent. Thus the average exploitation rate consistent with the proposed new escapement goal substantially exceeds the maximum rate estimated at any point in the last three decades. Even higher exploitation rates (68 percent) are consistent with the lower end of the proposed escapement goal range (15,000).

In light of the increased risk to future returns of late-run Kenai River king salmon, KRSA through task force member Kevin Delaney has put forth a draft matrix for a 2013 interim management plan concept. The objectives of which are to achieve a spawning escapement consistent with ADFG recommendation, SEG range of 15,000 – 30,000; provide ADGF management with statistically significant and implementable trigger points; retain management directives primarily for sport, minimize commercial harvest of late-run kings and maintain approximate historical distribution of harvest between in-river sport and set net fisheries; and share burden of conservation equitably across abundance strata with paired restrictions. The step-down and step-up pairings can be viewed here.

KRSA will continue to keep its members informed of progress on this important matter regarding the long-term health and sustainability of the iconic Kenai River king salmon and will release our assessment of ADFG’s proposed interim escapement goal in the near future.