Manage Kenai kings cautiously in face of uncertainty

As the hours of daylight ascend and temperatures rise, Alaska’s rivers are opening back up to welcome home returning salmon. After the long winter, sport and personal-use anglers are getting their gear ready in anticipation of the summer fishing season. While the preseason forecast for sockeye salmon is robust for the Kenai River, projections for Kenai kings are one of the lowest on record for both the early and late runs. 

Preseason projections for king salmon returns elsewhere are also tracking poorly, in line with the recent years of historic low abundances across the state. To deal with the state’s continuing crisis in king salmon management, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) has pronounced a wide ranging series of preseason, precautionary restrictions and closures for king salmon fisheries across the state.

On the Yukon River, the projection for Chinook continues to be poor to below average, with expected necessary harvest reductions in the subsistence fishery and no commercial fishery anticipated to be opened.

In Southeast Alaska, the abundance index this year for Southeast Alaska Chinook salmon decreased 20 percent from 2012, triggering reductions in all user and gear groups that harvest kings.

On the Copper River, the preseason forecast for Chinook salmon is 33 percent below the 14-year average (1999-2012) and if realized will be the fifth smallest return since 1980.

In Bristol Bay, because of limited information and low abundance of king salmon over the past five years, commercial fishing restrictions have been implemented for 2013, which include gear and fishing time for each district.

In Kodiak, recent years of poor productivity warrant conservative management approaches, with non-retention in the Karluk River and reduced bag, possession and annual limits in the Ayakulik River king sport fisheries.

In Lower Cook Inlet, gear, time, bag, possession and annual limit restrictions have been announced for the king salmon sport fisheries on the Anchor, Deep Creek, and Ninilchik rivers and for the marine recreational fishery from Ninilchik south to Bluff Point.

In the northern district of Upper Cook Inlet, king salmon fishery restrictions for the sport fisheries have been put in place for the Little Su and Susitna River drainage, while in the commercial fisheries time (50 percent reduction) and area restrictions were announced.

In the central district of Upper Cook Inlet, bag and possession limits for king salmon on the Kasilof River are closed to retention of wild fish and reduced to one hatchery-produced king.

While the forecast for Kenai River king salmon (early and late runs) is projected to be at historic low abundances, ADFG has not yet made any announcement on how it plans to manage either fishery this year. The early run Kenai king fishery starts with single hook and no bait allowed, then can step up or down depending on fish abundance during the season. The late-run Kenai king fishery has no mandatory restrictions to start the season July 1, and it starts later in the year than many of the other king salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet.

As a fishery conservation organization, Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) believes fish come fish and we support the proactive, preseason and precautionary actions taken by ADFG for king salmon fisheries across the state during these times of statewide low abundance of king salmon. When it comes to fishery management strategies to deal with low abundance of Kenai kings, we have repeatedly advocated for similar proactive, precautionary measures, as have been announced for other watersheds across the state.

KRSA believes the best approach is to start the fishing season for Kenai kings in a conservation harvest mode and then, if in-season returns show a harvestable surplus is available, liberalize the fishery. Such an approach can be considered a step-up approach, in contrast to a step-down approach, which starts the season with liberal harvest strategies and puts on the brakes if low escapement projections persist into the run. The problem we see with the step-down approach during times of low abundance of king salmon is that a liberalized start will more often lead to closure of the fishery earlier in the season than a more conservative approach. Fish saved early in the run often can be the difference between finishing the season with harvest restrictions and having it closed prematurely. KRSA believes there is more value to be gained by having a full season with harvest restrictions than one in which too many fish harvested early in the return leaves nothing for escapement, forcing early closures to the season for all gear groups.

For early-run Kenai king salmon management, the average mid-point of the return is June 7-10. By that time, ADFG has a fairly good sense to be able to project whether the lower end of the optimal escapement goal (OEG) of 5,300 early run Kenai kings will be met. With a 2013 preseason forecast lower than the midpoint of the escapement goal range, it does not look like there will be many fish available for harvest. Last year, mandatory catch and release went into effect June 15. And by June 22, the fishery was closed. It will be interesting to see how ADFG approaches the 2013 season for early-run Kenai king salmon management, and we will be watching closely.

For the late-run Kenai king salmon management, the average mid-point of the return is about the third week in July. In 2013, there is a new lowered escapement threshold for late-run Kenai kings, set at 11,700 fish (Didson sonar counts). Last season, the lower threshold for king escapement was closer to 18,000 fish (Didson sonar counts). In 2012, ADFG could not project an in-season escapement above that number until the very end of July, at which time they were able to reopen the commercial set net fishery in August; by that time, the season for the in-river sport fishery for kings had ended and ADFG rescinded an in-river no-bait restriction for the silver salmon sport fishery.

How ADFG chooses to manage late-run Kenai king salmon this season will be one of the most scrutinized and watched issues in 2013. How will a new lowered goal for late-run Kenai king salmon impact ADFG management actions? Will the lowered bar for king escapements spur ADFG to liberalize the commercial, sport and personal-use fisheries with no preseason precautionary measures and only rely on step-down measures to meet escapement goals?

Or will ADFG enter the season with a suite of more conservative approaches that pairs restrictions in all user groups to reduce harvests of kings until a more accurate understanding of the run strength emerges later in July? If the earlier king returns throughout Cook Inlet and the state remain poor as projected, will it influence ADFG management decisions?

ADFG is in the unenviable position of having to pick winners and losers, not just among user groups, but also for the fish. The lowest escapement on record for late-run Kenai kings is 16,000 in 2010. With no return data yet from that brood year, ADFG is left with no biological data to know whether just squeaking above the new minimum goal is wise or not. The lowest escapement ever for which there is brood year data is 26,000 fish in 1989, more than two decades ago when ocean productivity was altogether different than it is today.

KRSA believes the most prudent approach for fisheries management of Kenai kings in 2013 is to act in a conservative manner in both the early and late runs, as ADFG has chosen to do in the face of low abundance of king salmon throughout the state. We believe a conservative start with harvest restrictions in place for all user groups is most likely to be successful in providing more fishing opportunity over the course of the season. Then as the escapement data comes in during the late-run in July, maintain a precautionary zone of paired restrictions for all users group if escapements in real fish are projected less than 20,000 fish, and a step-up strategy to liberalize harvests when escapement projections rise above 20,000.

KRSA will keep its membership up to date on the 2013 fishing season on Facebook, the fish blog, e-newsletters and action alerts.