After a slow start and declining return projections, the Kenai River king salmon fishery will move to catch-and-release fishing beginning Saturday through the season’s July 31 ending.
For the first time in Alaska’s history, the catch-and-release fishery will be accompanied by a restriction to barbless hooks.
Starting Saturday, king salmon caught in the Kenai River cannot be retained or in possession and cannot be removed from the water — they must be released immediately, according to a Thursday emergency order.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game defines a barbless hook as one that is either manufactured without a barb or has a barb that has been completely removed or compressed so the barb is in complete contact with the shaft of the hook.
While there have been studies showing that barbless hooks reduce the efficiency of anglers, there have yet to be conclusive results showing that a barbless hook reduces the chance that a fish will die after it has been caught, said Fish and Game area management biologist Robert Begich.
“We will still be using an 8.25 percent mortality rate in our calculations,” he said.
During the 2013 fishing season when Fish and Game moved to catch-and-release fishing on the early run of king salmon, fewer than 80 fish were caught and Fish and Game managers estimated that of those, five fish died, according to data Begich presented to Alaska’s Board of Fisheries in February.
Though catch-and-release fishing sharply reduces the number of king salmon killed in the sport fishery, Begich said the restriction alone would not be enough to help managers make the fish’s escapement goal.
"This is a step down measure that’s going to give us some time … to see if the fish are going to come in,” Begich said.
If the king salmon passage rate, or number of fish that make it upriver past the sonar, does not improve managers will further restrict the fishery.
“Then the next step is to close,” he said.
Begich said managers were hopeful that the passage rate would “come up quite a bit.”
Fishing with barbed hooks is still permissible with other species on the Kenai River including red salmon, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden.
The barbless hook regulation, a new one for the Kenai River and for the state, was passed during the final day of the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting on the Upper Cook Inlet.
The seven-member board considered, modified and ultimately approved a proposal originally submitted by the president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Dave Martin.
“I believe it’s the only time we’ve ever adopted a regulation that talks about barbless hooks in the state,” said Board of Fisheries chairman Karl Johnstone during the meeting.
Johnstone said that he considers the barbless hook regulation, which applies only to catch-and-release king fishing on the Kenai River, a conservation measure that reduces the handling time of the fish.
Moving to barbless hooks was discussed extensively during the meeting.
Fish and Game regional fisheries management coordinator Matt Miller told board members that using barbless hooks didn’t reduce the number of hooked fish that were killed — rather that the gear was inefficient and caused fewer fish to be caught.
Fish and Game staff comments on Martin’s proposal estimated that angler efficiency with barbless hooks was reduced between 11-24 percent while young and inexperienced anglers were disproportionately affected.
It may be difficult to find hooks that are manufactured barbless in the area.
Scott Miller, co-owner of Trustworthy Hardware in Soldotna, said the store would not be stocking barbless hooks and would instead provide the tools to crimp a hook into being legal.
“We tried that about 15 years ago and no one bought them,” Miller said. “We sell a lot more files.”
Miller said he didn't think moving to catch-and-release fishing would be too significant as the king salmon fishery was already struggling this season.
“I was out there last night and I was the only boat,” he said. “I saw two fish caught and they were small.”
Stuart Cridge, of New Zealand, stopped into the hardware store and said he would still fish for king salmon even with the catch-and-release regulation.
Cridge, who said he had been fishing the Kenai River for 11 years has already practiced the method at least once this year when he caught a 66-pound king salmon Tuesday evening and let it go.
“My biggest one before that was 72-pounds,” he said with a grin. “But that was in ’06.”
Also new to 2014 management — commercial setnetting on the east side of the Cook Inlet will be restricted to 12 hours of fishing time per week when the Kenai River is restricted to catch-and-release.