Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials are hoping to receive state funding for a project aimed at helping increase the accuracy of estimating Kenai River king salmon abundance and help make better informed management decisions.
Gov. Sean Parnell recently released his proposed capital projects budget for fiscal year 2013, which included $1.8 million for funding the Kenai River king salmon sonar assessment program. The project aims to expedite the transition and implementation of a new sonar program — from the old split beam technology to more of the newer DIDSON technology.
“If the (funding request) were to be approved, it is going to allow us to transition into the new sonar much more quickly with a much better handle on what the sonar is measuring in a shorter period of time,” said Jim Hasbrouck, Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish Regional Supervisor.
In 2010, Fish and Game staff began using the DIDSON sonar in combination with the split beam sonar to estimate king abundance and the strength of the run. Management decisions, including those during last year’s run, were made considering the results of the split beam data and other techniques and not the DIDSON technology.
According to Fish and Game’s website, the new DIDSON sonar produces video similar to an ultrasound and has other advantages over split beam, such as determining fish size and distinguishing between individual fish swimming close together. It also requires less staff training to operate than the split-beam sonar, according to the website.
Hasbrouck said there has been heightened public concern during the last several years because of uncertainty in sonar data, as well as the comparatively low runs of Kenai kings.
“I think the discussions and consternation … last year was probably not anything new I think in part because we have had low king salmon runs throughout Southcentral Alaska the last two or three years and that has caused us to take restrictive action,” he said. “When you take restrictive action like that the public is much more concerned about the veracity of the assessment that you’re using to base those in-season management decisions on.”
In addition to purchasing new DIDSON equipment, funding will also go toward evaluating potential new sites along the river above tidal influence for sonar activity, developing in-season data processing protocols to efficiently produce estimates for managers, funding mark-recapture tagging data and employing weir counting on some tributary streams.
“These are all interwoven,” Hasbrouck said of the abundance measurement tools. “We want to transition to a new gear, but we also, because of the uncertainty we currently face, want to have a good idea of what that new sonar equipment is actually measuring relative to the abundance of king salmon.
“... We may find that the DIDSON isn’t estimating the actual abundance, but it is indexing the abundance very well and it is consistent for the early run and the late run over some number of years and so we have much more confidence and certainty in what that sonar is measuring, even if it isn’t measuring and providing us with an absolute estimate of king salmon passage.”
Fish and Game currently spends more than $800,000 each year in base budget funds — those coming from license sales and federal funds — to assess Kenai River kings, not including management or funding from other programs. Hasbrouck said Fish and Game is already working toward the goal of a better king assessment, but the $1.8 million would afford a degree of certainty and speed to those plans.
Parnell’s capital budget isn’t final as the state Legislature will soon review and possibly modify it before the final version is submitted back to him for further review and line item vetoes.
“Kenai River salmon, it’s a big deal,” Hasbrouck said. “King salmon is a huge deal — it is important for the recreation of Alaskans, it is important for the economic benefit it provides, it also ties in with management of upper Cook Inlet sockeye salmon and specifically with Kenai River sockeye salmon, so it has got a lot of importance to sport anglers and to commercial fisherman.
“Right now we have uncertainty, as well as the public, in how we are assessing king salmon abundance and we are trying to move forward to improve the situation.”