Two Challenges in Salmon Management: Low Run Size and Unpredictable Run Timing

Salmon run size and run timing can vary tremendously from year-to-year. It’s the hallmark of a life history strategy adapted over eons to the dynamic marine and freshwater environments they inhabit. Unfortunately, this makes it really tough on those who depend on plentiful fish runs for their lifestyle or livelihood. In years like this, where good Kenai sockeye runs are coupled with poor Kenai king runs, it is impossible to meet every escapement goal and fishery management becomes a complex balancing exercise between current and future yields among a vociferous bunch of competing fisheries.

Things get even more complicated over the course of the season in trying to figure out how many fish are coming and what fishery adjustments are needed to optimize harvest and protect escapement. Figuring run timing is the key to projecting run size from in-season data like sonar counts and harvest numbers. Figuring wrongly can lead to big problems. Early runs can lead to overestimates of run size, overfishing, and missed lower escapement goals. Late runs can lead to underestimates of run size, foregone harvest opportunity, and missed upper escapement goals. Thus, fisheries are often managed conservatively early in the season until run timing and run size can be reasonably estimated and minimum escapements can be assured.

Sometimes this works and sometimes it doesn’t. In 2012, a very weak king run and very poor early counts led to unprecedented fishery closures. But then a record late run timing produced a surge of kings that filled the spawning grounds but it came too late to do either the king sport fishery or the commercial set net fishery any immediate good. This year once again we are faced with another very weak king run and poor early king counts. Significant fishery restrictions have been implemented in all sectors. It remains to be seen whether king restrictions will be adequate to meet minimum escapement goals and whether fishery restrictions to protect kings will cause Kenai sockeye maximum goals to be exceeded. We already know that Kasilof sockeye escapement is well above the upper escapement goal.

By the third week in July, we have reached or passed the mid-point of both Kenai kings and sockeye. At this point, we can generally begin to make run timing and run size projections with some confidence in both most years.

Through July 22, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) has estimated that about 8,300 late-run kings have passed the sonar counter. Counts are declining in a time when they should still be strong. Current models are all converging on projections of a total run size under 20,000, possibly by several thousand depending on which models you believe. This is well below the preseason forecast of 29,000. It is now virtually assured that 2013 will be a record low run and produce a record low escapement. Whether escapement will eek over the lower goal of 15,000 is yet in question. That is why additional fishery restrictions were enacted in the sport and commercial set net fisheries this week. Of course, the optimists or advocates among us always hold out hope for another late run timing like last year to bail us out. However, the chances of lightening striking two years in a row are probably pretty slim.

Kenai late-run sockeye counts are also lagging the pre-season forecast of 4.4 million. A big early push of sockeye last week flooded the river and raised fears that we would blow way over the top of the Kenai escapement goal due to restrictions for kings. But numbers have dropped abruptly since then. We should be in the peak of the sockeye run but there are uncharacteristically low numbers moving through Cook Inlet. ADFG has been downgrading the Kenai sockeye run projection, but we are still sitting well within the Kenai sockeye escapement goal range. However, we still seem to be missing a million sockeye or so. There may be more sockeye yet to come, but how many? The fish are in charge and we will know soon enough.