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Strong sockeye return forecast for Cook Inlet

Posted: December 2, 2013 - 9:40pm  |  Updated: December 2, 2013 - 9:54pm

Upper Cook Inlet could see another strong year for sockeye returns if the 2014 forecast for 6.1 million fish comes to fruition.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game released its 2014 forecast Nov. 19, which predicts a run of between 4.4 million to 7.8 million sockeye, or red, salmon. That would be an above average return for the region.

At the 6.1 million fish level, ADFG expects a total harvest of 4.3 million fish for all user groups, and an escapement of 1.8 million sockeyes to all rivers, mainly the Kenai.

Sockeye bound for Upper Cook Inlet rivers are caught in sport, personal use, subsistence and commercial fisheries, and managers are tasked with offering opportunity to those users while also meeting escapement goals for several river systems.

This year, about 2.6 million sockeyes were caught in UCI commercial fisheries, according to ADFG, with an ex-vessel value of about $37.1 million. The average harvest from 2003-2012 was about 3.4 million fish.

For the Kenai River, the 2014 forecast calls for a sockeye run of about 3.8 million fish, which is equal to the 20-year average, but with a much larger proportion of fish that spend two years in freshwater and three years in the ocean.

ADFG estimated the 2013 run on the Kenai at slightly less than that, or about 3.5 million fish, with about an escapement of about 1.35 million sockeyes, more than the escapement goal range of 1 million to 1.2 million fish.

For 2014, like 2013, the forecast puts management in the middle tier of the current Kenai River sockeye management plan. That means ADFG would likely offer weekly fishing periods for Upper Subdistrict setnetters, and aim for 750,000 to 950,000 sockeyes past the sonar, under the current management plans.

Those are up for discussion, and possible revision, at the Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting that begins in January, so management could change before the season begins.

On the Kasilof River, ADFG is forecasting a run of 1.06 million fish, less than the 1.08 million sockeye seen this year, but ahead of the 20-year average of 953,000 fish.

In 2013, the Kasilof exceeded the upper end of its escapement goal range.

According the ADFG announcement, much of the strength of the Kasilof run is expected to come from salmon that spent one year in-river and three in the ocean. The model predicts about 17 percent more of those age fish than usual. That’s partially related to what was seen in 2013, when about 39 percent more fish from that age class returned than have in the past 20 years.

On the Susitna River, 264,000 reds are forecast, less than the 461,000 fish in 2013, and less than the 20-year average of 430,000 salmon.

Fish Creek, at the northern end of the Inlet, is also expected to come in below average, with 79,000 salmon forecast. The 20-year average for Fish Creek is 107,000 sockeyes.

If the forecast pans out, the Fish Creek return would be larger than this year, when just 25,000 fish are estimated to have swum back to the river.

On the west side of Cook Inlet, about 92,000 sockeyes are expected to return to the Crescent River, more than the 2013 run but less than the 20-year average. In 2013, 80,000 sockeyes are estimated to have returned to the Crescent.

But the forecasts are not always accurate. This year, Upper Cook Inlet sockeye runs came in well below the amount forecasted, and the timing of the run was irregular, with what managers described as a “compressed” run in their post-season report.

Users harvested an estimated 3.5 million sockeyes in the region, compared to 4.9 million fish forecast before the season began.

Most of the shortfall came from the Kenai River, where ADFG estimated a total run of about 3.5 million sockeyes, compared to a 4.4 million-fish prediction.

The Crescent River saw about 30,000 fewer fish than forecast, while the Fish Creek total run was about 36,000 less than expected.

The Kasilof and Susitna rivers both outperformed their forecasts this year, however.

The Kasilof saw a return of about 177,000 fish more than predicted, and the Susitna had about 98,000 more sockeyes than expected.

The forecast announcement also included a commercial harvest prediction for other salmon species as follows: pinks, 338,000; chums, 170,000; cohos, 165,000; kings, 7,600.

Those numbers are based on average harvests from the last five years, according to the announcement. In 2013, Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen harvested 58,139 pinks, 138,668 chums, 251,758 cohos, and 5,098 kings, according to preliminary ADFG estimates.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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