With the return of more normal king numbers following several years of poor runs, Cook Inlet fisheries are returning to typical fishing patterns according to current salmon management plans. With strong Kenai and Kasilof sockeye runs this year, that means lots of commercial fishing business as usual. Commercial drift gill nets fished seven days in a row from last Wednesday through yesterday (Tuesday) in the Central District. Commercial set nets fished six of seven days, interrupted only by Friday’s mandatory window. In-river fisheries have suffered as a result as counts of both kings and sockeye have fallen off sharply due to commercial interception.
Through Monday July 18, Central District commercial fisheries have harvested almost 4,000 kings and 1.5 million Sockeye. The forecasted commercial harvest this year is 4.1 million sockeye which is 40% above average. After several years of disruptions and uncertainty, a solid start to the commercial fishery comes as a great relief to the participants. As per usual, the large majority of the commercial king harvest occurs in the east side set net fishery as kings typically travel along the beach and may mill back in forth for several days before entering the rivers.
Kings are still on track for escapement goals with a good early showing. Through Monday, 11,792 kings were estimated to have passed the sonar. However, numbers have dropped off considerably over the last week following significant commercial interception. Anglers are now fishing mostly on kings that entered during the first couple weeks of the month.
Sonar counts have fallen off considerably after the last week of intensive commercial fishing. We are still ahead of schedule toward the in-river goal range of 1.10 to 1.35 million for the forecast 4.7 million run. Almost 600,000 Sockeye have been counted at the sonar. Coming into the normal peak of run timing (July 22), there should be plenty of fish yet to come if the forecast is true. Counts should pick up as the peak of the run returns and the commercial fisheries are resting today (Wednesday) and have a mandatory window on Friday.
Kasilof sockeye continue to trickle in although the commercial fishery appears to have cropped off much of the peak of the run. This stock typically has a much more protracted run timing than the Kenai late-run so we are now past the normal midpoint (July 14). Escapements are on track for the middle of the escapement goal range but the lowest total in the last five years.
We approaching the normal midpoint of the Kenai sockeye run and run strength will be assessed over the next week. The fish are in charge and will determine what happens next. If Kenai sockeye numbers continue to hold up, then decisions on expanding the sport sockeye bag limit from 3 to 6 and extending the personal use fishery to 24 hours will need to be made. However, intensive commercial fishing on a large sockeye run may make it difficult for in-river fisheries to reap much benefit from liberalization.
Windows are an essential part of current management plans for delivering fish to the rivers when they are moving through the Inlet. Windows give personal use and sport anglers the best chance of making sockeye available to weekend fisheries but by themselves cannot guarantee good fishing when the fish aren’t moving or commercial fishing is particularly intense. We saw this last week when the Friday window was not enough to offset high harvest rates in the commercial fisheries.
For people planning their fishing schedule, remember there is a lag time between when the commercial setnet fishery is open or closed and when effects are seen in the river. It usually takes a day or two for sockeye to show up after a fishing window. Fishing in the river can be very good while commercial fishing is open because the nets are fishing on tomorrows or the next day’s fish. As July progresses, sockeye move much more rapidly through the Inlet and large pulses can hit the river even when the commercial fishery is going strong regardless of whether there is a window or not.