Record Low Counts of Kenai Late-Run King Salmon to Date – Conservation Concerns Need to Drive Tough Choices

Thursday in response to record low numbers of late-run king salmon entering the Kenai River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) announced that the sport fishery in the Kenai River would be restricted to catch and release only beginning 12:01am Saturday July 19. Anglers fishing for king salmon are prohibited from using bait or scent and are restricted to the use of an artificial lure only with a single, barbless hook.

ADFG also opened a 12-hour commercial set net fishery targeting strong runs of sockeye salmon bound back to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. This fishery is expected to kill hundreds of late-run kings along the beaches of the Kenai Peninsula. In light of the catch-and-release restriction for the sport fishery, the paired restriction for king salmon conservation in the commercial set net fishery will now limit their fishing time to no more than 12 hours per week.

The escapement goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon is 15,000 to 30,000 fish. At this time ADFG is projecting an escapement of less than 12,000. Department managers recognize that they are allowing additional king salmon to be killed even while they are projecting that they will fail to achieve the escapement objective.

How can this be the case? Department representatives have advised us that they feel the run is a day or two late and that returns to the river have been delayed by big tides that have caused the fish to school in the marine waters for longer than usual. We hear that set net catches of king salmon along the southern beaches picked up considerably in the openers this week. We hear that the sockeye runs are strong and without significant participation by the set net fishery we will certainly allow far more sockeye into the rivers than are desired.

By early next week the mid-point of the Kenai king run will have arrived, providing managers with a clearer picture of the final run projection. Regardless of all the expensive assessments and technology that is brought to bear, fishery management remains as much an art as a science and managers are often faced with making reasoned guesses based on their expert judgment.

What we also know for sure is that the management objective is no-less-than 15,000 spawners and that at this time ADFG is continuing to allow the commercial set net fishery and to a much lesser degree the sport fishery to kill Kenai River late-run king salmon when they are projecting failure in meeting this escapement objective. We have some of the best salmon fishery managers in the world and sincerely hope that our managers are right that more kings are on the way.

Where there is significant uncertainty, KRSA believes precautionary discretion for the good of the fish has to trump economic self-interest. If the final escapement projections continue to be less than 15,000, how much longer will the Kenai River late-run king salmon fisheries remain open?