Are We Meeting Management Objectives for Late-run Kenai River King Salmon?

During the Cook Inlet King Salmon task force meetings this past winter, Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) put forth a management matrix for Late-run Kenai River King Salmon. The concept was to outline clear and transparent management objectives for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) during times of low king salmon abundance of Kenai River origin.

These objectives were as follows:

  1. Achieve a spawning escapement consistent with ADFG’s new interim recommendation of a Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) range of 15,000 to 30,000;
  2. Provide ADFG management with statistically and implementable trigger points;
  3. 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,
  4. Share the burden of conservation equitably across abundance strata with paired restrictions.

These objectives are standard in traditional fishery management: did we meet the escapement goal, are the fishery management plans science-based and implementable, are we accomplishing the intent of the management plans, and in times of low abundance is everyone sharing equitably in the burden of conservation.

At this point in the season, how does 2013 look in terms of meeting these management objectives for late-run Kenai River king salmon?

Achieving a spawning escapement above 15,000:

With normal run timing, the end of the third week in July marks the halfway point (50 percent) of the late-run Kenai River king salmon return. As of July 22, the Didson sonar count is 8,300, which represents daily estimates of king salmon of all age and size classes and is expanded by 1.28 to account for late-run king salmon passing outside of the zone reached by the sonar. In 2012 the estimate on July 22 was 10,112. At this point the sonar data points to a record low run and a record low escapement. Whether the minimum escapement goal of 15,000 will be met is still in question.

ADFG also uses other abundance indices for Kenai kings. Sonar tools include the Late-run Didson Threshold (kings less than 30 inches) Sonar Estimate and Late Run Sonar Net Apportioned Cumulative Passage Estimates, while non-sonar tools include Late Run Netting Project CPUE index, Late Run Sport CPUE index, and Late Run Eastside Setnet CPUE index. For each of these tools, the 2013 figures are significantly lower than the averages for the historical database and more recent years. As of July 23, only about 5,000 king salmon greater than 30 inches had been recorded by the lower Didson sonar.

So at this point can we tell if we are going to make the lower escapement goal of 15,000? Too soon to tell definitively, but it will be at the lower margin unless a significant late push of kings enters the Kenai.

Science-based and implementable trigger points for late-run Kenai River king salmon:

The management matrix outlined four abundance tiers (projected escapements) to base in-season management upon:

  • Normal:                                greater than 22,000
  • Precautionary zone one:      in the upper end of a range < 22,000 and > 15,000
  • Precautionary zone two:      in the lower end of a range < 22,000 and > 15,000
  • Closure:                               less than 15,000

So how has ADFG managed the late-run Kenai River king salmon fishery to date?

Prior to the start of the 2013 fishing season, ADFG indicated that with the new lowered escapement goal range of 15,000 to 30,000 and with a preseason forecast of 29,000 Kenai kings they did not anticipate the need to implement preseason restrictions on the July Kenai king fisheries. That outlook changed with the record low return of the early-run Kenai kings that resulted in fishery restrictions and closures.

ADFG then adopted precautionary measures for the July Kenai king fisheries in response to in-season data:

  • the in-river fishery started with single hook, no bait, with fishing and retention only below Sunken Island (effectively closing two-thirds of the available in-river fishing area)
  • no retention of kings in the personal use fishery
  • marine recreational fishery closed through July 15
  • east side set net fishery fish regular openers and restricted emergency opening hours

During the first half of the run from July 1-22, ADFG managed the late-run Kenai River king salmon fisheries primarily in the precautionary Zone 1 of the KRSA management matrix, with some deviations to provide for more commercial set net opportunity and to tighten up in-river restrictions due to early-run conservation concerns. The commercial set net fishery fished the two, 12-hour regular openers on Mondays and Thursdays, with additional emergency order (EO) time (about 12-15 hours per week instead of a full 51 hours) and fishing in the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area. The in-river area above Sunken Island remained closed even after July 15 as a conservation measure.

In response to the escapement projection in the lower end of the range less than 22,000 and more than 15,000, ADFG implemented further fishery restrictions, effectively moving into the precautionary Zone 2 outlined in the management matrix:

  • In-river sport fishery restricted to catch and release
  • East side set net fishery restricted to 8 – 12 hours of fishing time per week

Thus far in July the east side set net harvests have been averaging 300+ kings per opener. Restriction to catch and release for sport fisheries effectively reduces the in-river king mortality to very low levels (less than 50 for the remainder of the season).

The last step-down measure available to ADFG in July is to close both the in-river sport and commercial set net fisheries. If that happens, that means ADFG is projecting that we will not meet our minimum escapement goal of 15,000 king salmon spawners in the Kenai.

The question also remains open in regards to what management actions does ADFG take in August with regards to Kenai king salmon conservation. Will restrictions on the east side set net fishery remain in place to ensure that any kings returning in August enter the river without harvest mortality? Last year one third of the Kenai king run entered the river in August.

The issue of spawning escapement is confounded by the fact that as of July 23 only about 5,000 of the late-run Kenai River kings that have been counted at the mile 8 Didson sonar counter have been over 30 inches. Fish fewer than 30 inches are primarily male jacks. This week ADFG has observed older and larger Kenai kings have been showing up in the return, making it all the more important consideration of how much more fishing pressure to put on this portion of the king run, especially if we are at the point where we may just barely eek over the 15,000 minimum escapement goal.

Is the BOF policy directive to manage Late-run Kenai kings primarily for sport being realized?

The answer here is clearly “no,” but with the caveat that with record low abundance of king salmon (whenever there are less than 30,000 total run), over 3 million sockeye bound back for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and no change in the gear that is fished by the set net fishery this objective may be unattainable.  More intensive use of the drift fleet (this was successfully done last year) and changes in the gear used by the set net fishery are keys to managing king salmon primarily for sport in years of low abundance.  Clearly this issue must be on the agenda of the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) this year.

In regulation, the Upper Cook Inlet salmon management plans direct ADFG to manage the late-run Kenai River king salmon primarily for sport fishing in order to provide them with a reasonable opportunity to harvest these salmon resources over the entire run, as measured by the frequency of inriver restrictions. Sockeye salmon are to be managed primarily for commercial purposes, but in a manner that minimizes the harvest of late-run Kenai River king salmon and silvers of Northern District and Kenai River origins.

2013 will mark the second year in a row that sport anglers have had inriver restrictions for the July Kenai River king salmon fisheries. And in both years harvest of king salmon will be significantly larger in the commercial set net fishery than in the in-river sport fisheries. In years of higher king salmon abundance, harvest by in-river anglers has typically been larger than those of the commercial set netters.

Last year in 2012 the economic losses to the sport fisheries in Cook Inlet were estimated to be at $17 million. This year, with continuing restrictions and closures of king salmon sport fisheries in Cook Inlet, it is realistic to anticipate similar economic losses in 2013.

Is the burden of conservation being shared equitably across abundance strata with paired restrictions?

In 2012 and 2013, ADFG has responded to historic low abundance of late-run Kenai River king salmon by implementing paired restrictions on user groups, both sport and commercial, that harvest these fish. The sport fisheries (marine, personal use, and in-river sport) has seen step down measures enacted to reduce the mortality of Kenai kings, and the commercial set net fishery has seen similar step down measures, first with EO hours and then with regular periods. The restrictions for both user groups have been paired, meaning that actions taken in the sport fisheries are matched with restrictions in the commercial set net fishery.

Looking towards the 2014 BOF meeting, it will be important that the Upper Cook Inlet salmon management plans are updated to reflect this new reality.