Fish and Game staff to discuss season forecast, data

Ready for the run

Officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will expound on the salmon outlook for the upcoming season at a meeting on Wednesday in the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association building on Kalifornsky Beach Road.


Fisheries biologists will also discuss the sockeye salmon outlook, the use of the department's new DIDSON sonars and grant money awarded by the state that will be used in three new projects between the sport fish and commercial fisheries divisions.

The meeting is scheduled for 6:30-8 p.m.

Robert Begich, sport fish area biologist, said Fish and Game had already met with several people to discuss the outlook and the department's newest technology, but he wanted the public to have the opportunity to ask questions about new types of data on the department's website and how officials will assess the king salmon during the season.

Visitors to the department's website will see in-season assessment data updated twice a week and, in that data, a new red line tracking the department's minimum in-season management objective for sport fishing throughout the season. That line, in addition to the black "average" line could help predict whether the sport fishery will be restricted during the season.

Begich said the minimum in-season management objective was developed after people using the department's data were able to see that the run was below average and better than the previous year, but weren't able to see how the department would determine when to restrict certain kinds of fishing.

"So this year we've developed a management objective for each of these indices. That's the crux of this meeting is saying, 'look, here's the levels that these indices need to achieve adequate escapement based on all the information that we have,'" he said.

Begich said that, ideally, the numbers of salmon the department could track would be nowhere near the line marking the department's management objective.

"We want to be above it. If we're not achieving that objective, that means we're not likely to achieve adequate escapement," he said. "Now they can look at the graph and they'll know the run's not very good, but is it bad enough to have to restrict the fishery in season, take a step down so we're not killing as many fish? That's what this red line is all about."

Both the sport fish and commercial fish divisions are using the new DIDSON sonar, which replaced an old split-beam sonar, in order to track the number of fish making it into the rivers.

Pat Shields, commercial fisheries area biologist, said his division had been using the DIDSON longer than the sport fish division and ran the two types of sonar together for three years, which allowed department researchers to establish a baseline comparison between the two.

The sport fish division has relied on several non-sonar tools, like test netting at the sonar station and fishing reports, to manage the king salmon runs as its new DIDSON sonar has not yet  been in use long enough to have established an accurate baseline for measurement.

Begich said the non-sonar tools were the indices used to estimate king stock in 2011 and had been used previously to corroborate the old sonar reports.

"The old sonar is how we used to measure the fish coming in but we've discovered over the past decade that there's problems with that because what we're trying to do is estimate king salmon passage, and if there's other fish like sockeye present, it wasn't getting a very good estimate. It's hard to detect low numbers of kings," he said. "You'd get these data that were all saying one thing and then here's the old sonar shooting off into the moon."

So, the sport fish division began using non-sonar indices in 2011 to manage the run.

The DIDSON sonar, which Begich said is much better at detecting king salmon, so far has two years of data.

"The problem, since it's new technology, is that what we're trying to achieve for numbers of fish isn't the same with the new technology," Begich said. "So even though it gives us a number, we don't know what that number means relative to the old number, so we need to collect several years of data before we can use the DIDSON for management."

The preseason king salmon outlook for the Kenai River's early run is 4,600 to 15,000 fish and the late run 16,000 to 44,000 fish, which Begich said is "below average."

The first in-season update for the king salmon run will be completed Tuesday.

The preseason outlook for the 2011 season was approximately 36,000 late-run king salmon, while the outlook for the early run was between 6,400 and 10,400.

The 2011 season, while below average, was still better than the 2010 season when state biologists closed king salmon fishing on the Kenai River and restricted fishing on nearby waterways.

"The big picture here is that king stocks statewide are in a period of low productivity," Begich said. "As a department we don't fully understand why and so there's been a lot of restricted areas. The Anchor (River) is already restricted, there's already restrictions in Northern Cook Inlet for king fisheries, so as a whole it's a symptom that hasn't spared anybody."

Despite restrictions in other parts of the state, Begich said the sport fishing season's early run would begin with no additional restrictions to the ones normally in place.

The commercial fisheries division forecasted a run of 6.2 million sockeye salmon returning to the Upper Cook Inlet.

The department forecasted a harvest in 2012 of 4.4 million, about 400,000 more fish above the 20-year-average harvest.

While the sockeye run forecast for the Kenai River is six percent greater than the 20-year-average run at 4 million, the forecasts for the Kasilof, Susitna, and Crescent Rivers and Fish Creek are significantly lower.

Shields said he'd discuss the commercial fishing outlook as well as two new projects his division would be conducting to gather data on salmon migration.

The first project will fund a five-year experimental fishery that Shields said would begin somewhere between the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and cross the inlet somewhere north of Kalgin Island. 

The department is hoping the project will help determine whether fish headed to the Susitna watershed split away from fish headed to other watersheds.

"It has been a challenge for the department for 30 years to ensure adequate escapements to the Susitna River while not putting too many fish into the Kenai and the Kasilof rivers," Shields said. "We have good runs coming back to those two rivers and fairly poor runs coming back to the Susitna."

The second project will be a catch, tag and release program on king salmon which swim along the East side of Cook Inlet.

Researchers will drop several sensors along the bottom of the ocean which which will track the tagged king salmon and provide data on when and at what depth the salmon pass.

"What we're going to try to learn from that project is how do king salmon swim up the beaches? At what depth? Do they move in and out from the beach?" Shields said. "Our setnets can only go out a mile and a half; do they move beyond a mile and a half and then come back in to where they're susceptible to being harvested?"

One of the goals, Shields said, is to determine whether the setnet fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet could be structured in a way that would reduce their king salmon catch.

A third capital funding project will provide money to the sport fish division to invest in more DIDSON sonar.

Both Shields and Begich said they'd be available for members of the public at Wednesday's meeting, but also encouraged interested parties to contact the department or stop by the office at 43961 Kalifornsky Beach Road in Soldotna.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at


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