For the first time ever the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the Kenai River to king salmon fishing during the late run due to continued low counts of king salmon.
Sport fishermen, as well as commercial setnetters and driftnetters, were restricted in and around the Kenai River in an attempt by the department to meet the minimum in-season management objective believed to be necessary for an adequate escapement of king salmon.
"It could be the lowest run we've ever had," said Robert Begich area management biologist in the sport fishing division of Fish and Game. "This is the action we're taking to put as many kings in the river needed for seasonal goals."
The hope, Begich said, was to ensure there would be kings in the river in future years despite indications of dismal numbers this year.
With about 40 percent of the run completed Tuesday, none of the indices the department uses to measure run strength show that the king salmon run will meet minimum in-season management objectives in early August.
The sport fishing division's sonar measured the passage of 253 kings Sunday, bring the total number of late run kings to 4,033. The current in-season projections the department released show a maximum of 15,800 kings, which automatically triggers the closure of king salmon sport fisheries in the Kenai River according to the department's late-run king salmon management plan.
A series of emergency orders released Tuesday closed or restricted sport and commercial fishing in several areas.
* Commercial setnetting in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands section of the upper subdistrict will be closed until further notice while driftnetting within one mile of the Kenai Peninsula shoreline north of the Kenai River and one and a half miles from the shoreline south of the Kenai river is also prohibited.
* The Kenai River drainage will be closed for king fishing beginning Thursday through July 31 from the river mouth upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway bridge.
* The Kasilof River is closed to sport fishing for king salmon beginning Thursday and running through the end of the fishing season.
* Sport fishing for king salmon is also prohibited in the salt waters of the Cook Inlet north of Bluff Point.
Begich said Sunday's low number of king salmon passage numbers weren't available until Monday, so the sport fishery couldn't be restricted before Tuesday, and a buffer of a few days is needed to inform everyone who participates in the fishery of the changes.
The commercial fisheries can be restricted in a shorter period of time because it is a smaller group of people so its easier to inform them of a closure or an opening, Begich said.
"We can't turn the fish on and off with 20,000 people participating," he said. "Word won't get out for everybody and it wouldn't be an effective action to make sure no one was doing it anymore."
The lag time between when the division gets its DIDSON data and when it is actually measured is further complicated by the large number of sockeye passing the sonar station, Begich said.
"It's actually taking them longer now because they measure the fish and there's a lot more fish going through the ensonified zone," he said. "We won't get first blush at data from yesterday until tomorrow."
Begich said the department wanted to wait until the late run was closer to its normal midpoint, which falls on Wednesday this year, before issuing the unprecedented closure.
"We can't afford to wait any longer given what we're looking at," he said.
Some of the data from the indices the department uses manage the run in-season comes in daily but other indices, like some coming from the East Side setnet fishery, isn't useful as the fishery had only been fished for 25 hours before Monday.
The Kenai section of the upper subdistrict has fished one day of their regular fishing period, Monday, while the Kasilof setnetters have fished three.
Brent Johnson, president of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association and Kasilof section setnetter, said his family expected the closure but it was still a blow in a season that is already horrible.
"This is my 47th year of setnetting and I've had a lot of good ones and a few bad ones but this is by far the worst one I've ever had," Johnson said.
He said his family runs 33 setnets near Ninilchik at Coria Creek and he had gone into the season "a little bit optimistically."
"They predicted a real strong run of sockeye and a better-than-last-year run of kings," he said. "In this particular case I actually hope that they will open us again; what it will take would be a number of king salmon getting into the river. I hope that happens."
Johnson said estimated that he'd made about $12,000 for the year despite fishing more nets than he had in the past. While he is faced with being unable to get a crew to return and work his nets, he said he was supportive actions based on king preservation.
"Let's do something with the kings, we're looking at four years in a row," he said. "Let's not lower the escapement goal, let's do something to see if we can't get the kings back."
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com