Weak king run forces Fish and Game to manage outside the box

Breaking from the plan
Staff Sgt. Warren Woods shows off the king salmon he caught during the Wounded Warrior fishing event on the Kenai River in early June. Professional fishing guides and sport fisherman targeting kings who were able to fish earlier in the season are now out of the water under emergency orders from fish and game.

Editor’s note: This story is part of an ongoing look into Cook Inlet salmon fishery issues. The Clarion will continue to examine fishery management decisions and their effects.


What appears to be the weakest run of king salmon in the Kenai River’s recorded management history has caused great tension among sport and commercial fishermen, local businesses, fish managers and biologists.

But more than just traditional stress about fishery allocation and worry about how poor returns of king salmon will affect the future, this year’s return has forced local Alaska Department of Fish and Game officials to drastically change how they usually manage the run for all user groups.

The question has become how to manage the worst case scenario come to life. “This is a difficult situation — we haven’t seen this before,” said Robert Begich, area management biologist in the sport fishing division of Fish and Game. “Our regulations and our management plans weren’t adopted with this sort of scenario in mind, they really weren’t.”

Pat Shields, Fish and Game area commercial fisheries biologist, agreed that the run has also put tremendous pressure on the setnet fishermen in the Kenai and Kasilof areas.

“How we deviated is we didn’t fish the regular period — the first one of the year,” he said. “That’s before even one late run king salmon had even been counted in the river. Right from the onset we began restricting and closing regular periods to the east side setnet fishery in the Kasilof section. That’s a deviation — we have never done that before.”

On Thursday the Kenai and Kasilof rivers closed to sport king salmon fishing after a host of previous restrictions on where fishermen could target fish, with what gear they could fish, and what size kings they could keep.

So far, setnet fishermen have had to keep gear out of the water during five regularly scheduled fishing periods to conserve kings as well. As of Thursday, Kenai setnetters had only fished once and Kasilof setnetters had only fished three periods.

With sport fishing lines out of the water, setnets will also likely remain beached for the remainder of July unless an influx of kings makes a run up the river.

However, the driftnetting fleet — a user group that catches significantly fewer kings in their nets than setnetters — continues fishing aggressively to help Fish and Game keep sockeye escapement within healthy goals, Shields said.

Begich said the sport fishing division started managing the run conservatively early based on indicators of low Kenai king abundance.

“It is a really restricted fishery in comparison to other king salmon fisheries around the state,” he said of the early run. “We’ve got single hook, no bait, the protective slot limit, there are closed waters and there are limitations on guide hours and guide days.”

The river closed to early run king fishing on June 22, which is an option in management plans and has happened before in 2010 and 2002, Begich said.

At that time, Fish and Game took further action before the late run fishing opened on July 1 as to slow down and get a better perspective.

Managers feared the Kenai’s late run would be similar to other poor king salmon runs across the state, Begich said.

“We started the late run fishery restricted in that about 60 percent of the water that is normally open to king salmon fishing was closed,” he said. “We also started the late run without bait so that we could have some time to assess the run.”

Prohibiting bait fishing during the late run before it began was a first, Begich said.

However, bait and slot restrictions weren’t enough and managers prohibited the retention of kings in the personal-use dipnet fishery, went to catch-and-release in the sport fishery for a period and finally to a full king closure — the first in recent history of the Kenai’s late run.

“We broke away,” Begich said. “We talked in our preseason management meetings that we may have to deviate away from the normal regulations adopted by the Board of Fisheries depending on the strength of the run.”

Shields said the Board of Fisheries has directed the setnetters to fish regular periods two days a week from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. occurring on Monday and Thursday.

Then, through emergency orders, staff can change the fishing schedule to provide more time as needed or to take time away based on what’s going on with sockeye escapement or the king run, Shields said.

Staff were cautious even before the fishery was supposed to open in late June, Shields said.

“We said in case the late run is weak we are going to start out managing very conservatively and we closed regular periods in the commercial fishery,” he said.

Shields said another management first has been the separation of the drift and setnet fleets. The two groups normally fished for sockeye together prior to 2011, but driftnetters catch fewer kings.

“The reason for (fishing them together) is that we are not to allocate between those two gear groups, who gets to catch the fish,” he said. “We let the fish decide that.”

Fish and Game will continue aggressively fishing drifternetters, perhaps everyday, to keep too many sockeye from heading into the river, Shields said.

Average data shows that when escapement — the term used for when fish make it to their spawning grounds — is too high, the river gets lower returns years later, he said.

It is possible that setnetters will be able to fish in August on a limited basis, Shields said, but that decision is still pending.

Restrictions and closures to both sport fishing and commercial fishing have sparked numerous protests and meetings.

Both user groups agree they depend on the Kenai’s salmon runs for their livelihoods — a consideration that makes managing the fishery and closing it even more difficult, Shields said.

“This has severe economic consequences to in-river fishermen and commercial set gillnet fishermen,” he said. One contention of protesters is that Fish and Game officials might not know exactly how many kings are making it into the river, perhaps making management too much of a guess.

Begich said Fish and Game is using the data — what’s already occurred, what’s happening today and historical trends — as best it can to predict the near future.

They were forced to play “what if games” as the run developed, Begich said.

But as the season wore on less error in the projections occurred and staff had to take action and issue emergency orders within a narrow window, Begich said.

“That’s all part of the game, part of the process, part of the management,” he said.

On top of the uncertainty of the low king run and venturing outside of the management plan, Begich said

Fish and Game also had to balance the use of the sport fishing department’s new DIDSON sonar technology, which has been used as a comparative index during the last two years.

“So then you can take the last two years of DIDSON information and compare it with the other management objectives, the other tools for the last two years,” he said. “Are they saying the same thing?”

As a result of public demand, Fish and Game this year has added more staff to process the DIDSON footage in-season than in past years — once in the field and again in-house, Begich said.

Also, meetings among Fish and Game sport fishing and commercial fishing staff that used to only take 15 minutes before, now take hours, Begich said.

Begich said he and Shields have to work closely together to manage the run as a whole. “We work in the same office and even though the fisheries are different, we each know what each other is doing and communicate that,” he said.