Unprecedented 2012 season for salmon fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet

A crown jewel of North American sport fisheries, the world famous Kenai River made national news when late-run king salmon fishing was closed this year for the first time ever to both anglers and commercial set netters. King salmon fishing was severely restricted or closed across Upper Cook Inlet (UCI), and the state’s second largest sport fishery for silvers was recently shut down with the poor return to the Little Su. Yet the sockeye fishery on the Kenai was a banner year for dip netters, sport anglers and the commercial drift fleet, which all managed to keep sockeye escapements in check while fishing round the clock.

The wake of the economic impact from disruptions in the UCI salmon fisheries is now being tallied – some businesses may ride it out just fine while others will find it much more difficult to survive. The unprecedented closure for both early and late run Kenai kings this year will likely decrease bookings for the next five years, even if there are no closures or major restrictions in ensuing years. This is troublesome as the iconic Kenai king fisheries anchor an $800 million sport fishing industry in Cook Inlet.

There are storm clouds on the horizon for UCI salmon fisheries. In 2011 the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) closed sport and commercial king salmon fisheries in the northern district due to conservation concerns, and reconfigured the management plan for the commercial drift fleet to allow a conservation corridor for passage of northern district sockeye and coho. Late-run Kenai River king and Little Su coho returns have been at or below necessary minimum escapements for the fourth straight year.

Although the BOF cannot change the reality of low numbers of salmon returning to UCI, it is important that they address this new reality. The allocation, regulation and management of the UCI mixed stock, mixed species salmon fisheries are as complex as any fisheries management system in the world. Over the past 35 years conflict over UCI salmon resources has been the most stable element of the fishery.

Large returns of sockeye salmon bound back to the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers have regularly provided for intense commercial fisheries. Getting king and coho salmon targeted by sport anglers though these intense commercial gillnet fisheries and into all the rivers draining into the Inlet has always been a difficult challenge. Yet the state’s largest and most economically valuable sport and personal use salmon fisheries are found in UCI and unique in Alaska. Their recreational, social and economic values greatly surpass those of the region’s commercial salmon fisheries by every available measure.

Notwithstanding this volatile history the 2012 season has so far established itself as the most distanced from the norm ever. Two issues are of critical importance as we look to the future – first, support for existing and new salmon fishery research, and second, serious discussion by the BOF of how to best reconfigure the Kenai’s king salmon management plans in light of record shortfalls in abundance.

Researchers are now monitoring the movement of sockeye, coho and king salmon through UCI, to provide information on how to best configure commercial fisheries for optimal harvests of targeted sockeye species while providing for necessary fish passage of other salmon stocks. New research, if properly designed and implemented, could allow the commercial east side set net fishery the opportunity to harvest sockeye bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers while minimizing catches of low abundance king salmon.

It is incumbent upon the BOF to meet sooner rather than later to focus on the unforeseen and unexpected effects of record shortfalls in abundance of king salmon in the complex UCI mixed stock, mixed species salmon fisheries. It won’t result in increased numbers of fish but only the BOF can help the fisheries and those dependent upon them to survive these difficult times.