Kenai king fishing to close Sunday

For second year, record low escapement prompts Fish and Game closure

After a brief stint in catch-and-release fishing, the Kenai River will close to king salmon fishing beginning Sunday morning at 12:01 a.m. through the remainder of July. 

Managers do not project making the final sustainable escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 king salmon in the Kenai River according to the emergency order released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Friday. 

"Our counts are low for this time of year indicating that if the run is coming in on time, that it's going to be low and based on our projections — using different mean run timing models, projected harvest upstream of the sonar and the projected catch and release mortality through the end of the season — we are projected to not make the lower end of the escapement goal," said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist at Fish and Game. 

By Tuesday, fewer than 9,000 king salmon had been counted by Fish and Game's sonar at river mile 8.6, down from more than 10,000 at the same time in 2012 — a year manager's said could have been the worst on record. 

According to the department's creel survey data, 1,341 king salmon have been caught and kept by anglers this season. 

Last year, the Kenai River sport and commercial fishermen were restricted after king fishing was closed for the season on July 19, prompting a federal economic disaster designation. 

While fishermen have had more fishing opportunity this season than in 2012, sport fishermen on the Kenai River were restricted to catch-and-release and trophy fishing only for king salmon last week, while setnetters have sued Fish and Game in an attempt to gain extra fishing time. 

Guided sport anglers had just two days left in their season, however the closure still causes a significant economic loss to some.

Dave Goggia, owner and operator of Hooky Charters based out of Kenai, said he had eight people booked to go king fishing Tuesday and two booked for Wednesday — the last day of the king salmon season on the Kenai River. 

Despite the loss, Goggia said he would have advocated for a closure earlier in the season. 

"We talked to (Fish and Game) about it when they went to catch and release," he said. "We said, 'You know if it's that bad, why wouldn't you just close it?"

The inriver king closure will force a simultaneous closure for East Side setnetters in the the Upper Subdistrict of the Cook Inlet  according to the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan. 

Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial fishing division of Fish and Game, said setnet fishermen would remain out of the water until "further notice."

While the management plan on the Kenai River for late run kings only requires a mandatory closure of the setnetters through July 31 — the end of the king salmon fishing season— Shields said Fish and Game would not reopen the setnet fishery unless the king salmon projections met the minimum sustainable escapement goal in the Kenai River. 

While the setnetters could legally be reopened beginning Aug. 1, Shields said it was unlikely if the numbers of king salmon were still low. 

"Why would we close the sport fishery in July over king salmon conservation and then allow the commercial fishery to go out and harvest kings in August," he said. "That's just not prudent."

Robbie Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association and a setnet fishermen on South Cohoe in Kasilof, it was likely that setnetters would remain out of the water for the rest of the season. 

"It's going to take more than 500 kings a day through the counter to bring the (king salmon) projection up," Williams said. "The problem right now is we're just getting over these 20-foot tides and the kings never move on these big tides, so the timing is horrible. I'm guessing we'll be in the same scenario we were in last year where we get a strong showing of kings late in the season but it'll be too late for us to catch sockeye."

Editor's Note: This article is being consistently updated as this story unfolds. 

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