The Cook Inlet commercial fishery is coming off an above-average year for harvest of sockeye salmon, but commercial fishermen are not the only ones who benefitted from the big run.
“In Upper Cook Inlet, the approximate exvessel value of the commercial fishery in 2011 is somewhere between $50 to $55 million,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist Pat Shields said, “which is still one of the better years in Cook Inlet history, I think it’s one of the top five for exvessel value.”
Rob Williams, a setnetter, said the harvest was well above average, and among the highest in his 30 years of fishing.
“It was probably the third-largest harvest I’ve had since I’ve been fishing,” he said.
Shields said the value is still an estimate, as Fish and Game is still calculating harvests on their fish tickets.
As for the reason for the high return, Shields cited one age of fish above all others — the 6-year-olds.
Shields said the 6-year-olds are defined as sockeye that spend two winters in their freshwater environment and three winters in the marine environment.
“We had a return of the 6-year-olds of nearly 2.9 million of the total return of 8.7 million,” Shields said.
Normally, Shields said, the fry will spend a year in the Kenai and Skilak Lakes before they migrate from freshwater to the sea. A smolt is a young salmon that is in the process of being covered with scales and migrating from freshwater to the sea. On the Kenai Peninsula, the sockeye make their way from Kenai and Skilak lakes into the Kenai River.
“Traditionally, you get anywhere from 60 to 80 percent of the (fish) will leave after spending one winter in Skilak and Kenai Lakes,” Shields said. “But due to competition for food resources from success of large escapements, the smolt held over an additional year.”
The extra year in the freshwater allowed the sockeye to have a fairly good marine survival rate, which led to the better-than-expected return of the 6-year-olds, Shields said.
“The timing of the return in 2011 was very atypical for Cook Inlet,” Shields said. “We didn’t have a lot of fish show up in Cook Inlet, at least in the Central District until July 14 — the drifters that particular day went out and had a very good day.”
That day would lead to a two-week period in July that saw the most fish harvested, which caused concern for some fishermen who had to navigate around catch limits set by Fish and Game, as well as limits coming from the processors.
“It makes us a little less efficient,” Williams said. “It’s nice when it’s spread out — on our beach, we had a really compressed harvest from July 16 to 18, a lot of pounds were caught in that time period.”
A large sockeye harvest can have a ripple affect throughout the community.
“I think commercial fishing is going to be an economic engine after a year like that,” Williams said. “We’ve got another good return coming back next year, so there will be a lot of money going into the economy.”
Williams said 80 percent of the setnet fleet are Alaska residents — many of whom live on the Peninsula, so the money earned will go right back into the community’s economy.
“The high residency rate really makes a difference,” he said. “Most of them live right where they fish, so the money stays local.”
With a large return, fishermen can afford to make large local purchases.
“I’m ... personally going out and looking at buying a tractor, I’ve bought a bunch of nets and gear and stuff that you can’t do when the fishing is mediocre,” Williams said. “So it’s going to be a big boost to the economy.”
The increase of fish in the river may have some consequences, said Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition Chairman Dwight Kramer.
“I have mixed emotions, I think the commercial guys did good, the sport fishermen did good, the personal-use fishermen did good, on a big run like that, everyone does real well,” Kramer said. “But at the same time, if we put so many fish in that we might be borderline on the over-escapement issue that might affect later runs, it might not be a good thing.
“I think (Fish and Game) used all the management tools they had (with) the ... run size the way it was. We’re in the belief that over-escapement is a fact like (Fish and Game) believes.”
Kramer said the Coalition would like to see “pretty good fishing all the time,” through sustained escapements, so that the runs are level — not peaks and valleys.
Another negative affect, Kramer said, is the increase of the popularity of the personal-use fishery. He contends the large number of personal-use fishery participants are crowding the rivers on Mondays, which may take away from the driftboat experience.
“Four or five years ago, (the drift boaters) enjoyed a peaceful river to fish on,” Kramer said. “That became part of the lure of switching people over from power boats to drift boats.”
Kramer said the pure nature of driftboat fishing may be at risk as a result.
“The drift boat fishery for king salmon is the only pure fishery we have that has quality of experience tied in to it,” Kramer said. “If the value of that pristine type of fishing suffers because of the increase of the power boats tied into the personal-use fishery, that would be a shame.”
Kramer said the coalition is searching for a solution. Fish and Game have not released the number of personal-use permits as of press time.
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said fears of over-escapement may be premature.
“The return this year just shows the fears of over-escapement were overblown,” Gease said. “The returns the last two years were a third or greater than what was anticipated.”
Gease said the Didson-calibrated counts for 2005, 2006 and 2007 showed 2 million fish coming into the Kenai River, “which was supposed to crash the whole system,”.
“Obviously that didn’t happen,” Gease said. “We had abundance instead of poverty in terms of the theory of over-escapement.”
Shields addressed the obvious question for next year.
“So that makes us wonder about 2012 — are we going to see that again?” Shields said. “We have some indication in the smolt program we run on the Kenai River, that a lot of the smolt that went out three years ago were age 2s, so it’s possible. It is reflected in our forecast for 2012.”
Once again, the key, Shields said, are the 6-year-olds.
“We are forecasting an above-average return of the 6-year-olds again,” Shields said. “There’s a high degree of variability around the forecast, so that’s going to be the biggest question mark for next year’s return, how many 6-year-olds show up.”
Shields expects the run next year to be more spread out instead of spiking during a two-week period again. Having a run spread out over the entire season makes fishing easier on everyone.
“That’s better for fishermen and processors,” Shields said. “But that’s why they call it fishing — we don’t know what will happen next year.
“But it’s a good forecast, it’s above average and if the fish come back as forecasted, it should be a good year for all users — sport, personal-use and commercial.”
Logan Tuttle can be reached at email@example.com.