If angler and commercial fishing time and area restrictions are any indication, Kenai River king salmon have had another poor season.
Factor in continued low counts of the iconic salmon making it upriver past the sonar at river mile 8.6 and the run is shaping up to be one of the worst on record — a dubious distinction previously given to last year’s fishing season by area biologists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Still, since the river was closed to king salmon fishing in the last few days of the season after no-bait and catch-and-release restrictions failed to slow harvest enough that managers were comfortable letting anglers continue to put fishing pressure on the beleaguered chinook, a few hundred fish a day have continued to make it upriver.
While the sonar is scheduled to remain in the river until August 15, more than two weeks after the king salmon season officially ends, it is still unclear whether managers will meet the minimum sustainable escapement goal of 15,000 fish.
“We kinda peaked out at July 29 when we got 803 (king salmon counts at the sonar),” said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist in the sport fish division at Fish and Game. “We basically dropped 100 fish a day until (Thursday) when we got 506... we’re still looking for, essentially, 3100 fish to get past the sonar before the 15th.”
Anglers who follow Fish and Game’s “fish counts” page for Kenai River chinook have seen the number of chinook salmon in the river reach more than 13,000; however factoring in harvest — as estimated by the department’s creel survey — of more than 1500 king salmon throughout the late run puts the actual estimate of chinook in the river closer to 11,500.
That means at least 225 fish a day for the next 11 days, “just to meet the minimum escapement goal of 15,000 fish by a few fish,” Pawluk said.
Run timing models, which split the late run into “early,” “on-time” or “late,” show the midpoint of the run to be around July 18, Pawluk said.
“It’s a good chance that we’ll fall somewhere around an ‘on-time’ run and not a ‘late run,’” he said.
Many commercial and sport fishermen expressed their frustration to the commissioner of Fish and Game and Alaska’s state Board of Fisheries last year after severe restrictions — based on low numbers of chinook making it past the sonar — kept them out of the water during the chinook salmon season; climbing counts of fish entering the river post-season revealed that more than a quarter of the late-run swam up the river in August and managers reached their escapement goal.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org