For the first time since 1965 the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has announced a preseason closure of fishing for Kenai River early run king salmon.
A preseason forecast for the run estimated 2,230 fish to make a run on the river, less than half of what is needed to reach the lower end of the ADFG optimum escapement goal of 5,300 fish.
The early run sport fishery for kings will be closed beginning May 1 through June 30 from the Kenai River mouth upstream to Skilak Lake and the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai river upstream to the northern edge of the Sterling Highway bridge.
Kings may not be targeted or retained.
Initially, area managers said they would likely start the 2014 king salmon fishing season on catch-and-release fishing — similar to the 2013 season.
Currently ADFG estimates about an 8.25 percent mortality rate on kings caught and released.
Last year, catch-and-release fishing on the early run of king salmon resulted in a catch of fewer than 80 fish and ADFG managers estimate a mortality of about five fish, said Robert Begich, ADFG area management biologist, during a February presentation to Alaska’s Board of Fisheries.
“It provides opportunity and it doesn’t kill a lot of fish,” said assistant area management biologist Jason Pawluk.
Managers can also use inseason creel data, or angler surveys, as a tool to corroborate data coming from the inriver sonar used to count the kings by comparing it to reports coming from fishers on the river.
However, the idea of any kind of fishing on the ailing early run did not sit well with some members of the Board of Fisheries.
Chairman Karl Johnstone said he had a “hard time understanding” how any mortality was acceptable to area managers.
“Why would you do that? Why would you consider having any fish killed at the beginning of this season?” Johnstone said to Begich after the biologist’s presentation.
In 2013, the preseason forecast for early run kings was 5,300 fish, but the final escapement estimate was 2,032 fish according to ADFG data.
“You have an estimate, a forecast of 2,230 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,” Johnstone said the meeting.
Pawluk said ultimately area managers decided to be more conservative in their approach to the early run.
“We’ve kind of changed our approach this year and we’re going to start closed,” he said.
The emergency order announcing the king fishing closure was released Thursday — well in advance of mid-May when angler pressure begins to pick up on the king salmon.
In 2013 the early run was restricted to catch-and-release via an emergency order released May 9, just a week before ADFG managers typically put their sonar into the river and king fishing begins to pick up.
Pawluk said the early announcement was, in part, a response to criticism on how late ADFG managers restricted the river last year. “It affects a lot of people and users and businesses who plan for these fisheries,” Pawluk said. “So these restrictions are being released right now to give people time who would maybe be making plans right now for these fisheries — to have time to change their plans or adjust them to take part in other fisheries in the area that are not restricted.”
Restrictions on the early run of king salmon the Kasilof River were also announced Thursday — from May 1 through June 30 anglers will only be allowed to harvest hatchery kings, those which are missing their adipose fin. Bait and multiple hooks is also prohibited on the Kasilof River.
“We typically restrict the Kasilof whenever we restrict the Kenai for king salmon fishing to try and prevent an ballooning effect of anglers shifting their effort,” Pawluk said.
Additionally, in the Lower Cook Inlet streams and marine waters, several areas are being restricted to conserve king salmon runs. The Anchor River is closed to sport fishing on Wednesdays and closed to sport fishing upstream of the Old Sterling Highway Bridge. The combined annual limit for kings on the Anchor River, Deep Creek, Ninilchik River and marine waters south of the mouth of the Ninilchik River to Bluff Point is two, anglers can use just one unbaited, single hook with an artificial lure in the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers and Deep Creek.