Upper Cook Inlet king salmon are experiencing the early-run Blues

Toward the end of last week (about June 12-15) we passed that critical historical 50 percent point in the 2013 run of early-run king salmon in Upper Cook Inlet. It is clear to anyone fishing or watching the run data come in that the returns are not good. No one expected 2013 to be a banner year but the observations to date are dismal – the combination of pre-season restrictions and further in-season emergency orders issued thus far make it look questionable whether we will achieve the objective of putting sustainable numbers of kings on the spawning grounds. More restrictions are very likely to be announced during this week.

On the Kenai River sport fishing was limited to catch and release for early-run kings prior to the start of the season. The only “tool” left in manager’s box is a closure to king fishing through June 30. Without substantial increases in daily counts of early-run kings past the sonar, we look for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) to issue a closure order effective Thursday, June 20 for the remainder of the month. The small number of kings observed entering the Kenai to date could have justified an earlier closure but managers have rightly waited taking into consideration the late spring and the fact that very few fish were being killed by the sport fishery. The bottom line is that without multiple days in a row of sonar counts in the hundreds, the Kenai will close to sport fishing for early-run kings. Clearly, without the numbers of fish needed to achieve the escapement goal this will be the right call.

If the early-run of Kenai kings come in at a new record low abundance, what does this mean for the late-run of Kenai kings in July? ADFG publicly stated back in January that “all is well” with the late-run of Kenai kings now that there is a new lower escapement goal in place. ADFG’s Director of the Sport Fish Division expressed the department’s intention to begin the late-run king fishery with bait allowed and normal commercial set net fishing. This week will tell us whether the early-run is as weak as indicated by initial numbers. Without observing a dramatic turnaround in abundance the early-run fishery will close. Should that occur, it is only prudent to rethink the fishing strategy for the late-run of Kenai kings.