Conservation of late-run Kenai River king salmon must remain the primary objective for the remainder of the 2012 season

In response to the smallest return of late-run Kenai River king salmon ever observed the sport and commercial fisheries managers of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) have issued Emergency Orders putting in place unprecedented restrictive actions.

As of 12:01 am Thursday, July 19 the Kenai River was closed to sportfishing for king salmon for the remainder of the year and the east side set net commercial fishery is closed through July 31. These closures follow a long list of prescriptive restrictive actions imposed earlier this season in an attempt to slow the fisheries and minimize harvest of late-run king salmon. In spite of all efforts, ADFG states that “achieving adequate escapement of late-run Kenai River king salmon is still doubtful in 2012.”

The 50 percent point of late-run Kenai River king salmon has just passed, and while adequate escapement is still in doubt, continued conservation must remain the priority for the remainder of the run, not just the remainder of July. Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) has assessed fishery data collected by ADFG on a daily basis since the beginning of this season and the organization fully supports the closures aimed at achieving adequate escapement of late-run Kenai River king salmon. ADFG staff has done an exemplary job of working through a very difficult situation this season; they should be complimented for their efforts. Their work, however, is not yet complete.

Businesses supporting both the sport and commercial fisheries will certainly suffer, as will sportfishing guides and commercial set netters. Everyone loses the opportunity to fish for world renowned late-run Kenai River king salmon. As tough as it is for individuals, businesses and the community, most quickly agree that “the fish must come first.” To ensure that fish come first during the remainder of 2012 means getting every possible late-run king salmon on the spawning grounds.

Statements by ADFG managers and fishery data found in articles published in the Peninsula Clarion on July 16 and 17, raise serious issues about just how committed ADFG is to getting every possible late-run king salmon on the spawning grounds.

On July 16, the Clarion referred to data collected by one of the Department’s tools to assess abundance, specifically the Didson sonar unit. ADFG has gone to great efforts to make it clear that the Didson unit is experimental at this time, provides only an index of abundance and that the Didson unit does not allow them to produce an estimate of abundance that can be compared to the numerical escapement objectives stated in the Late-run Kenai River King Salmon Management Plan. This was not at all clear from reading the article in the Clarion, where it was stated that “using Didson sonar the Department projects a return of up to 15,800 late run king salmon.” Since the numerical escapement objective stated in the late-run plan is a minimum of 17,800 fish, one could assume that we are close to the goal. That is clearly not the case. Let’s not let confusion over the utility of the Didson sonar count get people thinking that the objective is close at hand and that fishing may be restarted this season.

On July 17, ADFG managers were quoted as saying “we’re evaluating options that would perhaps allow set netters back in the water.” After opening this can of worms, the ADFG spokesperson went on to accurately describe the limitations on their authority when it comes to situations like the one we find ourselves in at this time. It is nonetheless troubling to be as far from achieving adequate escapement of late-run king salmon, have the sport fishery closed for the year and still be “evaluating” options for the set net fishery.

A call by KRSA to the commercial fishery managers quickly cleared the issue up. What is being evaluated is allowing limited set netting to take place between 1.5 and 2.0 miles offshore in what is now an area open only to the Drift Fleet. Set nets fished in this offshore area would likely kill no more king salmon than the very small number now killed by the Drift Fleet.

Also being considered, is an experiment based on “flagging” set net gear. Flagging would entail anchoring only one end of the gear. Many set net participants have offered this strategy as a tool for minimizing set net harvest of king salmon, while still providing opportunity to harvest sockeye. KRSA supports a Department supervised experiment of this type, with adequate observers and a research plan in place.

What is still not entirely clear is what ADFG intends to do with the commercial set net fishery after July 31. Ten to 16 percent of this year’s run of kings will return after July 31. If the ADFG managers are correct in that a projected 15,800 kings will make escapement by then, another 1,580-2,528 kings will return after Aug. 1. Sportfishing for king salmon is closed by regulation after July 31. The late-run Kenai River king salmon plan ends on July 31, so the mandatory link between closure of the sport fishery and closure of the east side set net fishery goes away. Yet, the mandate for achieving adequate escapement of late-run Kenai River king salmon remains ADFG’s foremost obligation.

After all the effort that has been made and all the financial pain that has and will be inflicted on all users during the peak of the runs of both kings and sockeye, let’s not attempt to get creative on the margins. The remainder of this year’s run of king salmon needs to get on the spawning grounds. Conservation of late-run king salmon must remain the primary objective. The fish come first!