Strong July king counts to date have come as a welcome relief to Kenai area fishers and fishery managers. Numbers bolstered confidence in the preseason forecast for a much improved run from the past few years. At the normal 15 percent point in the season, the sonar count of 6,416 as of Monday is almost a third of the way to the 22,500 number below which the management plan triggers additional restrictions.
ADFG managed carefully during the early season following several years of low king returns and fishery disruptions. The sport fishery started without bait which substantially reduces fishery participation and catch rates. The commercial set net fishery limited use of emergency order openers on the Kasilof beaches.
This precautionary strategy paid off by banking fish toward escapement, increasing in-river fishing opportunity, and minimizing later risks of king-related disruptions in sport, commercial and personal use fisheries. The use of bait was allowed in the Kenai River downstream from Slikok Creek beginning Saturday July 9. In the Kenai River personal use fishery, the harvest of king salmon is allowed. Commercial set net fisheries will now resume a more normal fishing strategy following the first regular Kenai beach opener of the year on Monday, July 11 as per the management plan.
Strong early July sockeye counts are also providing an unexpected boon to commercial, personal use and sport fishers. Kenai late-run sockeye are forecast to return at 4.7 million strong, which would be an above-average run. As of Tuesday July 12, 324,000 late run sockeye have been counted at the Kenai sonar. This is the second largest count recorded as of this date, just behind the 327,700 seen in 2002. The run is clearly early and likely strong but it is still too soon to distinguish how early versus how strong.
Sonar counts are well ahead of pace needed to meet in-river goals so we can expect to see aggressive commercial set net fisheries over the next couple weeks to access the harvestable surplus and bring escapements in line. Sockeye are managed for a commercial fishery priority. Conservative early season management to protect kings will allow for increased fishing on the peak of the run to maximize sockeye harvest per king taken. Friday 36 hour windows will remain in place to deliver sockeye into the river over the weekend as long as fish are moving through the inlet. However, the 24-hour window in the management plan goes away at runs over 4.6 million.
Kasilof sockeye continue to return at a steady pace and remain on track to fall within the sustainable escapement goal range. After July 7, the Kasilof set net fishery is managed in tandem with the Kenai set net fishery according to the management plans.
Commercial set gillnet and drift gillnet fisheries are picking up steam as the Cook Inlet sockeye run is building to its peak. Strong early sockeye returns have led to solid early harvests. Beginning July 9, the Central District drift gillnet fishery is managed with conservation corridor restrictions designed to concentrate harvest on abundant Kenai and Kasilof sockeye while passing northern-bound coho and weak Susitna sockeye stocks northward. The drift gillnet fishery has enjoyed good sockeye catches in initial openings of the expanded Kenai and Kasilof sections developed as part of this regulation. Corridor regulations again appear effective in reducing commercial interception of coho which are managed for a sport fishery priority in Cook Inlet.
Very large numbers of pink salmon are also showing up early in the commercial harvest this year. Pink salmon runs are even-year dominant in Cook Inlet. Pink salmon are sold in the commercial fishery but at much lower value than sockeye so some commercial fishers try to avoid them when sockeye are abundant. It will be interesting to see if another big pink run causes problems with sockeye sonar counting in the Kenai later in the season as it did in 2014.