Searching for Sonar

A stick figure — hastily drawn in blue dry-erase marker — strums a guitar along a riverbank while a large fork-tongued salmon swims upstream, the caption reads, “We are the sultans, we are the sultans of ping.”


The play on the lyrics of an iconic Dire Straits song, it’s a rare sight on the walls of the small building that houses the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sonar office where the touch of humor sticks out amid posters on boating safety, notes on sonar operation, hard drives starting data from two sites on the Kenai River and photographs of researchers working in the field.

In this office, researchers in the sport fish division of Fish and Game spend their days counting chinook salmon, or kings, that swim past several sonar arrays — or DIDSON — located at river mile 8.6 and river mile 13.7 on the Kenai River.

Jim Miller, the Kenai chinook sonar project biologist, spent a few hours of his morning Thursday guiding a group through the intricacies of gathering and interpreting data from the DIDSONs which Fish and Game area managers then use to make inseason decisions on who gets to fish, where and for how long.

It was the last of several group tours of the project that were given to groups of fishermen, advisory council members and others interested in the veracity of Fish and Game’s chinook salmon data.

Miller said researchers used the opportunity to educate members of the public on how the sites actually work.

While the sites are not closed to the public, the tour offered a rare glimpse into the inner workings of the DIDSON research project.

“It’s not something that we have time to do, just give anybody who walks in a tour,” Miller said. “Our main purpose is to collect and analyze the data and produce estimates.”

However, given the increased public scrutiny on Fish and Game’s methodology — including new sonar and a new chinook salmon escapement goal — and increasingly restrictive management of chinook fishing, groups like the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Fair Fishing 907 and the Alaska Outdoor Council have gotten the chance to address lingering questions about the data that leads to inseason salmon run management.

Bruce Morgan, who drove down as a representative of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Council, said the group he represented wanted to know how to make Fish and Game’s job easier.

“What do you need to get better data? Do you need a better boat? Do you need more data to test? What do you need? Because it’s stupid not to have that when somebody is going out of business in town,” he said of the ripple effect in the community when fishing is shut down.

A re-occurring question, both during the tour and in other venues has been why Fish and Game did not use data from both its sonar sites during the last season to help manage the fisheries.

Miller told the group that the DIDSON in the lower river was used for management while the units upriver were still being tested. This year was the first full year of use for the upriver site and as it is still experimental, researchers did not prioritize interpreting the data from that site.

As the fishing season winds to a close, three of the eight people currently on staff at the sonar office will work to sort through the mounds of data generated by the experimental sonar site and generate a report by next year, Miller said.

Bill Iverson, president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, spent most of the tour recording with a small Sony HD video camera. He said he appreciated that the department opened the project up to scrutiny.

“They’re pretty good about that stuff as long as you push them, you’ve got to push them,” he said. “They kind of stay a little tight lipped sometimes, but most of the time they’re pretty open.”


Rashah McChesney can be reached at