Facing the prospect of the lowest run on record, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued further emergency restrictions on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in an attempt to bolster the number of early run king salmon that make it back up the river to spawn.
The Kenai River, from its mouth upstream to Skilak Lake, will be closed to king salmon fishing beginning Friday through the end of the early run on June 30 as Fish and Game tries to meet its minimum escapement goal.
Current estimates show the run to be predicted between 4,000 to 4,100 kings, well below the minimum goal of 5,300 set by the department.
Robert Begich, area fisheries biologist in the sport fish division of Fish and Game, said the run numbers could be even lower as the department's prediction doesn't take into account the number of fish already harvested on the Kenai river.
"Nothing in 2012 has been good about Cook Inlet king salmon," Begich said. "All the runs are very slow."
Currently department estimates show a sport harvest of 317 fish according to the creel survey which measures the harvest below Soldotna, putting the predicted run of kings around 3,500.
In addition to the closure of the Kenai River to sport fishing for early run kings the emergency orders:
* Prohibit all sport fishing for king salmon, including catch-and-release fishing, in the waters of the Kenai River from the Fish and Game marker about 300 yards downstream of the mouth of Slikok Creek, upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge beginning July 1 through July 14.
* Ban the use of bait beginning July 1 from the mouth of the Kenai River to the Fish and Game marker located at the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge. Only one, unbaited single-hook, artificial lure may be used.
* Ban the use of bait and multiple hooks on the Kasilof River fishery.
While the new emergency orders for the Kenai supercede previous emergency orders, the previous restriction to the Kasilof River fishery still stands; it allows people to keep only hatchery-reared king salmon, indentifiable by a clipped adipose fin, regardless of their size.
Begich said restricting the late-run with a bait prohibition was a first for the department.
"There is a dual benefit for this action," Begich said. "It'll help those lower fish that will be in that river below the Slikok Creek and it'll reduce exploitation or harvest of the late run fish until the department knows that we've got enough in that run to proceed with the second part of the fishery."
Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman's Coalition and a private angler, said the coalition supports the restrictions based on how slow the run has been.
Kramer said going to no-bait in July would help protect the early run spawners which don't actually spawn into well into the late run season.
Ultimately Kramer said the coalition supported restrictions on the river because the long-term implications of a shortage of kings were unacceptable.
"We know that there's something going on that's causing the kings all over to be low in the Kenai," Kramer said. "We can help ourselves as much as we can with restrictive actions so that we get the maximum amount that we can on spawning."
Kramer said there were other restrictions he'd like to see put into place to protect Kenai River kings including more protection zones for spawning kings.
He said he didn't think enough protection was offered for the main-stem spawners, or those that don't leave the Kenai River to spawn in one of its tributaries.
"I'm happy they're taking a precautionary approach," he said.
Dave Goggia, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and owner of Hooky Charters, said he wasn't surprised by the restrictions as the association meets with Fish and Game every week to keep track of how the run is going.
Goggia said he appreciated the department's "step-down" approach of restricting the late-run to no-bait instead of closing it off to king fishing altogether.
"If it wasn't for that than it might have been catch-and-release and that's harder for our clients to accept," he said. "So no-bait we see that as a good first step in trying to cut down harvest," he said.
Begich said the department estimates that not allowing fisherman to use bait reduces the harvest by more than 50 percent.
Several guides said they had been expecting further restrictions based on observation alone.
"Guides are the first ones on the river that realize that we've got issues and something needs to happen," Goggia said. "We're out there every day and see what's going on so we knew that there weren't the numbers of fish that should have been there."
Goggia said despite the association's support of Fish and Game restrictions, there would still be a lot of suffering among guides due to these restrictions.
"There will be folks going out of business because of this," Goggia said. "It is going to be painful."
Tyland Van Lier, owner of Alaska Fishing and Lodging in Soldotna, said he was already feeling the economic squeeze from in-river restrictions.
"I was in the negative last year," he said. "I'm booked solid except for the 30th of June and I don't know what I'm going to do. I'm giving back money, I've got people cancelling."
He said he was hoping Fish and Game would keep the Kenai river on catch-and-release so his clients would still have a chance to try for the famed kings.
"The opportunity just to be able to get on the river is what we prayed for," Van Lier said. "A lot of people think you've got to kill something to bring people here but it's not that. What I'm selling them is opportunity. Not to kill anything, just the opportunity."
According to the department's media release, the extremely low abundance of kings meant it "could not justify the additional mortality associated with catch-and-release fishing."
Van Lier said he was a year-round resident of Soldotna whose livelihood was tied up into the health of the river.
"I fish around 140 to 145 days a year, clear to the middle of October," he said. "This is 100 percent what I do for a living. I don't do anything else. This is it."
Despite the pressure of having to explain to clients that they won't have a chance at kings until the late run, Van Lier said he was more concerned with the effect on the community when business for guides was shut down.
"When I book a vacation everybody wins. They're eating at restaurants in town, they're buying tackle. When they're not here, they're not buying a hamburger at Buckets, they're not going to Fred Meyer to get their groceries," Van Lier said. "My cabins are empty and when they are, it's a community effect."
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.