Anchorage — On its first day of convening to meet and discuss Upper Cook Inlet fisheries, the Alaska Board of Fisheries heard a research wrap-up from Alaska Department of Fish and Game employees and a private contractor, studying the area’s complex mixed-stock fisheries.
The board, which meets every three years to discuss the Cook Inlet fisheries, heard about escapement goals, sonar programs, king salmon, habitat assessment, and commercial fisheries before breaking for the day.
During a review of area escapement goals, ADFG staff reviewed escapement goals for the four types of Pacific salmon that have goals in the Cook Inlet.
Those include 21 king salmon stocks, including two on the Kenai River, one on the Little Susitna and one on the Deshka; one chum salmon stock on Clearwater Creek, three on Fish and Jim Creeks and Little Susitna River and 10 sockeye, or red salmon stocks, including those on the Crescent, Kasilof, Kenai and Russian rivers.
Several of the king salmon stocks that have escapement goals in the Cook Inlet are classified as stocks of concern — or stocks that have not consistently met escapement goals. Included in those were several water bodies on the west and north sides of the Cook Inlet including the Chuitna River, Alexander Creek and Willow Creek.
Two of those stocks, Willow Creek and the Chuitna River, made their escapement goals during the last fishing season for the first time since 2009.
Of the escapement goals examined in the Cook Inlet, few changes were suggested. One, a coho salmon stock on the Jim Creek near Palmer, could be raised from a goal range of 450-700 to 450-1,400 according to the ADFG presentation.
Staff also recommended eliminating the goal of 30,000 to 70,000 fish on the Crescent River on the west side of the Cook Inlet.
Escapement goal monitoring via a sonar program was cut from that river and did not run during the 2013 fishing season.
“That funding was cut for Crescent River because of reductions in budget,” said Lowell Fair, fisheries biologist with ADFG.
ADFG did not recommend Little Susitna coho salmon to be listed as a stock of concern despite dwindling returns in recent years.
Staff said the coho stock on the Little Susitna made its goal in 2013 according to data from an ADFG weir on the river.
“In the past we have seen that Little Susitna coho have the ability to produce large returns from small escapements,” said Jack Erickson, regional fisheries research coordinator for ADFG.
Dean Hughes, a habitat biologist for ADFG, talked to board members about the importance of inriver habitat to juvenile fish.
A healthy habitat provides nutrients, resistance to erosion, shelter for juvenile fish during floods and a food source for rearing fish, he said.
The Kenai River has been the site of 623 fish habitat rehabilitation projects since 1995 according to ADFG data — those included projects that removed structures or conserved more than 40,000 feet of fish habitat using low-impact structures such as grated walkways. Still other projects rehabilitated shoreline.
In the Upper Cook Inlet, ADFG has also been replacing culverts to allow for fish passage and opening up about 62 miles of spawning and rearing habitat, according to ADFG data. In the Kenai and Kasilof river watersheds another 16 culverts were replaced, opening another 23 miles of habitat.
Results of those habitat projects included more than 560 miles of water bodies being nominated for inclusion into the states Anadromous Waters Catalogue, or freshwater fish inventory.
An overview of the Kenai river king salmon escapement goals, management and sonar program resulted in a barrage of questions by board members to ADFG Soldotna area biologist Robert Begich.
Several revolved around the DIDSON and ARIS sonar projects on the Kenai river which the department uses to measure passage of king salmon up the river.
Currently staff operate two sonar sites on the river, one that is used for in-season management and another classified as a research project which managers do not use to monitor escapement or gather inseason information.
The goal, Begich said, is to eventually migrate management to the research site which is located at river mile 13.7 and is farther upstream than the department’s current sonar.
As ADFG staff develop the new program “expansion factors” are applied to the number of fish counted by the management sonar to account for fish the sonar may be missing.
Another factor applied to the sonar count comes from a netting program the department uses apportion the run, or divide the sonar counts of fish into age classes.
The Kenai River king salmon run is divided into two separate runs of fish, commonly called an early and late runs.
While both early and late run pre-2014 season outlooks are at historically low levels, the early run of king salmon is not forecasted to have enough fish to meet the lower end of its escapement goal, or 5,300 kings.
In 2012, the final escapment of early kings was 2,032 fish. The department originally forecast about 5,300 fish — or just enough to meet the lower end of the goal.
Begich said ADFG managers planned to start the early run conservatively by restricting king salmon fishing to catch-and-release only.
“I’m having a hard time understanding, Mr. Begich … you have an estimate, a forecast of 2,200 king salmon which is about two-fifths of the required minimum escapement, and if you’re close to what you did last year, you could be off again,” said board chairman Karl Johnstone.
Johnstone said he did not understand how ADFG could consider allowing any fishing, or potential mortality for the vulnerable stock.
“Why would you do that? Why would you even consider having any fish killed to start off the season when you’re estimating not even coming close to the lower (goal),” Johnstone said.
Begich said ADFG managers started the early run in a similar fashion during the 2013 season.
“We had a catch of 80 fish and an estimated mortality of approximately five,” Begich said. “This year we’re planning to move into the season in the same manner and collect some data to see if this outlook forecast is real and act accordingly. We won’t have any hesitation to close the fishery again.”
A private researcher, David Welch, presented a study his company, Kintama, was contracted to perform for ADFG in Cook Inlet. The study was meant to determine where salmon go when they swim in Cook Inlet.
Researchers tagged 76 sockeyes and kings combined in the inlet during 2013, and then tracked their movement through the inlet and into streams. Just 25 kings were tagged. They generally swam closer to the beach and deeper in the water than sockeyes, Welch said.
Scientists from ADFG’s genetics testing lab however, said in a presentation after Welch’s that management decisions should not be based on the study, and that it was too limited — having just one year of data — to use any of its conclusions. They said the king information was “unreliable.”
Public comments where scheduled to begin Friday but did not start until 8 a.m. Saturday morning. More than 230 people signed up to comment by midday Saturday and comments will continue well into Sunday before the board breaks at 1 p.m. to “attend other activities,” for the day Johnstone said.
Alaska Journal of Commerce Reporter Molly Dischner contributed to this report.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org.