Late-run Kenai River King Salmon Task Force – First Meeting a Mixed Bag, Second Meeting Canceled

The first meeting of the Kenai River king salmon task force was a mixed bag, with positive signs and also disappointments. On the positive side, the two members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) who co-chair the process certainly came to work, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) brought over ten staff members, a sign of their commitment, and the day-long discussions were cordial and respectful. The disappointment comes from two other factors. These are that ADFG is not yet ready to make public the new Didson sonar based escapement objective for late-run king salmon in the Kenai River and the set net representatives seemed to forget what happened in 2012 in hopes that a low enough escapement objective or additional restrictions in the sport fishery will allow the set net fishery to go back to “normal.”

The second scheduled meeting of the task force has been postponed until January when ADFG has indicated that they would be ready to present their provisional Didson based escapement objective. Set net and other commercial oriented interests on the task force voted in unison to cancel the December meeting, one of the three remaining on the schedule, feeling that nothing productive could be accomplished without this new provisional escapement goal. The representatives from KRSA, the in-river guides, and the personal use fishery felt that the cancelation wastes valuable time that could have been productively used to continue the discussion on what management strategies can effectively deal with the conservation concerns for king salmon in times of low abundance while still allowing fisheries some measure of harvest opportunity.

Meanwhile much of the word on the street from east side set netters (ESSN) and other commercially oriented interests has changed from preventing a re-run of 2012 in 2013 to a mistaken notion that there really are not valid management concerns for low abundance of king salmon on the Kenai River. Their narrative, voiced at the first meeting, at the Governor’s announcement in Kenai of $30 million over the next five years for research funding on the statewide issue of low king returns, and in local media is that either the new sonar goal for late-run kings will be so much lower than the old goal that the problem will simply go away or that the ADFG’s assessment capability is so challenged that they have no idea how many late-run king salmon are returning to the Kenai River and that until they get their act together fisheries, at least the ESSN fishery, should not be restricted. KRSA does not agree with either of these assessments.

Based on all available data describing patterns of low abundance of king salmon in the Cook Inlet area and statewide, a review of the results from the recent state sponsored king salmon symposium, the State’s request for a king salmon disaster declaration and Governor Parnell’s recent commitment to king salmon research, KRSA believes that low abundance of king salmon is a real phenomenon, at the local, regional and statewide scales in Alaska. Contrarian views otherwise are based on wishful thinking, not science.

Next we will take a look at the new reality of low abundance of king salmon and what it likely means for Cook Inlet fisheries that harvest kings.