State hesitant to discuss 2013 Kenai River king sonar data

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion Sonar technician Brandon Key shows the new ARIS sonar the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is using to ensonify Kenai River king salmon.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar technicians have been done processing data from the two king salmon sonar sites on the Kenai River since late October, however, staff have been largely unwilling to discuss 2013 results, saying interpretations are still in draft form.

Managers deferred questions to regional supervisor Jim Hasbrouck who said Fish and Game staff planned to have a Frequently Asked Questions document for the public sometime in the next week. He said he was not prepared to discuss specific results of the 2013 sonar data.

Hasbrouck, the southcentral regional supervisor, said Fish and Game staff had not been specifically told they could not discuss the results of the sonar program.

“To my knowledge there hasn’t been any message delivered to squelch people from talking; we’ve not had a meeting and said ‘OK, you guys can’t talk to the media about anything,” he said. “People are uncomfortable, I’m even uncomfortable talking about it because it is so new.”

The two sonar sites, one at river mile 8.6 and one at river mile 13.7, are used by the sportfish division of Fish and Game to count king salmon in the river. The former is used for inseason fisheries management while the latter is an experimental site Fish and Game staff are considering for management use in the future.

Steve Fleischman, a fisheries scientist in the Fish and Game statewide research and technical services office, said Monday he and others tasked with the postseason analysis were primarily done.

“I think we’ve pretty much done as much postseason scrutiny of the numbers as we’re going to and there were some surprises in there, but for the most part it kind of makes sense,” he said.

Still, he deferred specific questions to Hasbrouck and said it was not his decision to release new data to the public.

Hasbrouck said Fish and Game “higher-ups” needed to meet during the first week of December to discuss how Fish and Game would present the information.

“It’s not like this means that the interpretation is going to change,” Hasbrouck said. “There are just other people that are part of the discussion.”

From those discussions, Hasbrouck said Thursday he was concerned that if he spoke about 2013 season sonar data, he could say something in error.

“We’re working on this (question and answer) or FAQ ... there are a lot of people on the peninsula that have questions and you know they’ve got those questions and they don’t feel the department is providing them with an answer. Well, in large part it’s because we’re trying to figure it out,” Hasbrouck said.

Preseason, during public meetings Fish and Game managers and staff consistently said data from the experimental sonar site would not be used for inseason management and 2013 was the first time the new king sonar program was run for an entire season.

Trying to figure out the ins and outs of the new sonar site and how its data relates to data generated from the lower site is an ongoing process, Hasbrouck said.

“We were just trying to determine this year if we could actually operate a sonar program there and be able to get estimates of passage in some kind of production way inseason,” he said. “Can we even get sound in the water? What kind of problems may we run into at this particular site that affects the sound that’s in the water or will we see some really strange behavior such that it’s really not any better there than it is (at the original site)?”

While unwilling to discuss specifics, Hasbrouck did say staff considered the 2013 season’s “test run” of the experimental site a success.

Management for the 2014 fishing season will continue to be based on data that comes from the original king salmon sonar site at river mile 8.6 but staff will run the two sonar projects in tandem for the entirety of the next season, he said.

“There were so many questions that arose after the work that we did this year that we need to work on those and try to get those figured out,” Hasbrouck said. One of those questions will depend on the 2014 season and specifically how pink salmon interact with the new sonar site.

Pink salmon typically run up the Kenai river in even-numbered years so staff have yet to see how those salmon would interfere — or if they would interfere — with sonar ability to count king salmon.

Debby Burwen, a sportfish division biologist who has been with the Kenai king salmon sonar project for several years, wrote in an email that the department was not unnecessarily holding back information.

“Just because the data has been mostly processed, that doesn’t mean we have finished subjecting it to the scrutiny and quality control review that we typically perform post-season on all of our sonar data,” Burwen wrote.

Most of the post-season analysis she was referring to, she wrote, came from the department’s experimental sonar site at river mile 13.7, where managers ran a large bank-to-bank sonar array for the entire king salmon season to determine if the site could be used for fisheries management in the future.

“We really aren’t trying to be coy, we simply want to be very thorough before we release the ‘final’ estimates,” Burwen wrote. “People can get quite upset if you change your estimates even a small amount once these final estimates are released.”

Clarion file material was used in this article.

Reach Rashah McChesney at rashah.mcchesney@peninsulaclarion.com .

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