If the 2014 outlook for early and late run Kenai River king salmon is accurate, fewer than 2,500 early run king salmon will make it into the river to spawn.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers called the number “well below average” according to two outlooks for Kenai River king salmon posted to the department’s website late Wednesday.
The early run of king salmon, which runs through June 30, is projected to be the second lowest on record and just slightly above the 2013 early run of kings which was projected at about 2,150 fish.
Given the low numbers, Jason Pawluk, Fish and Game assistant area management biologist in the sport fish division, said it would be “fair to assume” that the early run of kings would start with some sort of restriction.
“It’s very similar to 2013,” Pawluk said. “We started the early run last year ... with a catch and release fishery and we went to closure on June 20.”
In a catch-and-release fishery, king salmon mortality is typically calculated at about 8 percent of the fish caught, but the river has been closed to king salmon fishing in previous seasons when even catch-and-release mortality was to high for managers to continue allowing fishing pressure on the stock.
Pawluk did not say whether the early run king salmon fishery would be closed at the beginning of the season due to low numbers of fish, but he said Fish and Game managers would likely allow for some catch-and-release fishing leeway at the beginning of the season.
“Here’s how we rationalize it,” he said. “There’s variability and error in calculations and ... there’s really not going to be much (fishing) effort.”
A catch-and-release fishery gives managers time to measure the run strength and gather data on whether or not their pre-season estimates are accurate, he said.
Any of the planned management for the season could be changed during the upcoming Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage where several regulatory proposals could potentially affect the way area biologists manage Kenai king salmon and fisheries in the Upper Cook Inlet.
During the 2013 season, estimates of amount of king salmon in the river were made by both Fish and Game and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service which runs weirs on three of the larger tributaries of the Kenai River.
The majority of early run king salmon spawn in tributaries on the river rather than in the main stem according to Fish and Game data.
Preliminary data from Fish and Wildlife’s analysis of the weirs showed a run that was both higher than what Fish and Game sonar staff counted at their sonar site and comprised of nearly 80 percent males.
Pawluk said Fish and Game was working collaboratively with Fish and Wildlife to determine how many king salmon were in the river, but continued to use Fish and Game methodology to count the fish — including a sonar site at River Mile 8.6 and a netting program designed to give them an estimate of the average age composition of the run of fish.
“We are continuing as planned, as we put before the (Board of Fisheries) and the public on the goals,” he said. “We’re running with that to manage this summer.”
Pawluk said department staff were planning to make changes to the Fish and Game netting program in 2014 to account for fish that could have been missed by its sonar counter in previous years.
“What we plan on doing is developing a more stringent netting program this summer to look at fish that are passing behind the (sonar) and closer to the near shore,” he said.
The late run of Kenai River king salmon, which runs from July 1-July 31, is also forecasted to be below average with a total run projection of about 19,700 fish.
The sustainable escapement goal, SEG, on the river calls for a range of 15,000-30,000 fish to maintain a healthy fishery.
Pawluk said the forecast showed nearly 5,000 fish that were “surplus to escapement needs” or available for harvest, but he said managers would still approach the season with caution.
“We’re not trying to hit 15,001 fish every time,” he said.
During the 2013 season managers estimated a final escapement, after calculating the total run minus the harvest of king salmon by sport and commercial fishermen, as just above 15,000 fish.
“We don’t have a definite plan for the late run because we kind of have the luxury of seeing how the early run plays out and getting the idea of how that run went,” Pawluk said.
No matter how the runs turn out, Pawluk said fishers could expect area biologists to manage the season with conservatively.
“If these outlooks are realized, we’re still in this period of low abundance, so we’re going to be precautionary in the way we manage these runs like we have been for the past three years,” Pawluk said.
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.