Kenai River king salmon management plans – then and now

Why does the Late-run Kenai River King Salmon Management Plan require the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to restrict the sport fishery first and only restrict the commercial set net fishery when the sport fishery is totally closed? This approach seems entirely contrary to the sport fishery priority afforded to king salmon in the management plan.

To understand why the existing plan favors commercial fishing interests, we must re-examine the history of its development. Record low abundance of Kenai River king salmon is not the only difference between today and the 1980’s when this management plan was first adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF). Understanding these differences is essential to understanding what changes are needed to address the current reality.

The use of sonar to estimate the in-river return of king salmon to the Kenai River beginning in the late 1980’s gave the BOF and ADFG the tool they needed to develop escapement goals for king salmon. ADFG brought the abundance data and a description of the management tools they could use to configure fisheries to achieve escapement objectives to the BOF. The results are the Kenai River king salmon management plans for the early and late-runs that we have today with little if any significant change over the ensuing 25 years.

Three factors present in the late 1980’s heavily influenced the discussion and outcome:
1. The 1980’s saw consistently large returns of king salmon of Kenai River origin, both early and late-run. Record large returns of king salmon were being seen across Alaska during this period. Just prior to initial adoption of the Kenai River king plans total returns for the late-run ranged from 45,000 to 90,000 fish as compared to 2012 when the preliminary estimate of total return is more like 22,000 fish. Average total return of late-run Kenai River sockeye salmon in the early 1980’s was approximately 2.2 million fish (corrected to DIDSON) as compared to the recent average of just over 4 million fish.
2. The 1980’s saw rapid growth in the sport fishery and guided sport fish industry. This growth and volatility created a fear that the harvest potential of the sport fishery alone could soon jeopardize attainment of escapement objectives and lead to restriction of commercial fishing. This fear lead to adoption of measures designed to slow down the harvest in the sport fishery (time, area, single hook, no bait, guide restrictions, catch-and-release, daily and annual bag limits) prior to taking any action whatsoever in the commercial fishery. With consistent high abundance of king salmon the norm, commercial fishing interests felt reasonably comfortable agreeing to close if it got to the point where the sport fishery was closed because sport closures seemed very unlikely.
3. In the 1980’s the BOF was comprised typically of five to six board members (out of seven) who would vote in opposition to any proposal that challenged the dominance of a commercial fishery. Weak stock management in mixed stock fisheries received more lip service than actual consideration and the economic value of a sport fishery was not regularly considered. The BOF in general appeared to consider both the guided sport industry and non-resident participation as unwelcome participants in the Kenai fisheries.

Contrast the 1980’s to the situation we find today:
Abundance of king salmon of Kenai River origin (a trend also seen statewide) is now less than 50 percent of what it was when the management plans were first adopted. There is a real possibility that harvest in the commercial set net fishery alone could jeopardize achievement of escapement objectives prior to the fish entering the river even with the sport fishery entirely closed.

Participation is the sport fishery and the guided sport industry is significantly less than what it was during the 1980’s and stable at this lower level. By the late 1980’s angler effort for late-run Kenai kings had tripled in just ten years and reached over 300,000 angler hours per year downstream from the Soldotna Bridge alone. Since the late 1990’s, effort typically averages about 230,000 angler hours per year. Guided effort currently accounts for just under half that total. The economic significance of sport fishing to the region and the state are now better documented and understood.

Lastly, there is now much more balance in the membership of the BOF, and as a consequence economic value data and mixed stock issues receive more consideration.