Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers announced a closure of the Kenai River king salmon fishery Thursday after continued low counts of returning fish into the river.
The closure, effective Saturday, triggers a closure of commercial setnet fishing on the East Side of Cook Inlet and is meant to conserve Kenai-bound king salmon which are not currently projected to return in large enough numbers to make the escapement goal on the Kenai River.
As of July 23, the sonar estimate of king salmon passage into the Kenai River was 8,023 fish and current projections put the final escapement between 13,500 and 14,000 fish — below the river’s escapement goal range of 15,000-30,000 fish.
Daily estimates of king salmon passage into the river have remained in the low hundreds of fish — the highest passage to date was Sunday, which saw more than 1,000 fish pass the sonar. Counts have since dropped significantly.
Fish and Game sport fish division area management biologist Robert Begich said the high passage on Sunday helped bump projections upward but continued low counts kept projections lower than what is needed to make the escapement goal.
Begich said projections would have to increase dramatically for the fishery to be reopened.
“If 5,000 kings came into the river overnight, if a miracle happened, yeah we’d turn it back on,” he said. “We just want to make the goal and it’s just a day-to-day thing. It’s going to take a lot to (reopen).”
Area business owners said the closure of king salmon fishing is a blow, but one that will have lasting effects that extend beyond the king restrictions in the 2014 season.
“Our lodging in the last half of June and the first half of July was down considerably,” said Stephanie Erkeneff, owner of the Kenai River Raven lodge.
The downturn has been an expected part of their business in recent years, Erkeneff said, as fishing on the Kenai River king salmon run has been increasingly restricted and has become a less reliable fishery.
“For us, for our lodging it has a big impact. We charge more in July than we do in June and August. So, financially, by not having those rooms filled in the first two weeks of July (the loss), it’s considerable,” Erkeneff said. “But, nobody, no government, can do anything about that because the fish aren’t here.”
For Bill and Nancy Sweat whose Sterling-area lodge Beluga Bill’s is located at mile 38 on the Kenai River — the king salmon run closure has less of an impact than the slow sockeye salmon run on the river.
“King fishing probably affects us, but not maybe quite as bad,” Nancy Sweat said. “People have gotten used to the idea that kings aren’t always open. Now, people don’t come up for that.”
Erkeneff, whose lodge is located on Funny River Road in Soldotna, and Sweat said a lot of their business comes from sockeye salmon fishing in the latter part of July.
Kenai River sockeye salmon have yet to materialize in the river in the large numbers that anglers and personal-use fishers have come to expect.
As of Wednesday, just over 578,000 late run sockeye had made it past the Kenai River sonar. More than 1.093 million were counted inriver by the same date last year.
“It has been consistently slow. I can’t say that it has dried up, but it certainly hasn’t been the run we’re used too,” Sweat said.
She said the closure of king salmon fishing in addition to the slow red salmon fishing has had an impact on her business during the 2014 season.
“Our clients don’t get the fish that they’d like to get, so that does impact us because they’re not going to come back if they come up here to spend money to get fish and can’t get them,” Sweat said.
As for anglers looking for king salmon, Erkeneff said her lodge doesn’t encourage fishing for them.
“All of us are morally obligated not to fish for kings and we have really educated our potential guests not to fish for kings. I had only one group that went that still was going to fish for kings on the Kenai, they knew it was no bait and a single, barbless hook — 16 of them went out and they only caught two fish all day,” she said.
Managers also announced restrictions for the king salmon fishery on the nearby Kasilof River. Usually the Kenai and Kasilof rivers share restrictions as Fish and Game managers try to keep fishing pressure from shifting from one river to the other.
Beginning Saturday, anglers will be restricted to catch-and-release fishing for Kasilof River king salmon.
An additional emergency order closed sportfishing for king salmon in the Cook Inlet saltwater north of Bluff Point.
Commercial set gillnetting in the East Side setnet fishery is closed unless the setnet fleet is fishing in a narrow beach area around the mouth of the Kasilof River known as the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area.
The Kasilof River Special Harvest area and the Kasilof section of the East Side setnet fishery have been opened several times during the 2014 fishing season. The Kenai section of the setnet fishery, however, has had three openings for a total of 36 hours of fishing time since its season began in mid-July.
The closure of the fishery can make it more difficult for managers to control the escapement of sockeye salmon.
The Kasilof River sockeye salmon run has been strong. More than 366,000 fish have made it past the river’s sonar, bringing the run toward the upper end of its escapement goal of 160,000-390,000 fish.
East Side setnet fishers as well as drift gillnetters have been used extensively by commercial managers in an attempt to slow escapement into the Kasilof River, but the nearby Kenai River sockeye run has yet to hit the river with the same strength.
Pat Shields, area management biologist in the commercial division of Fish and Game, said indicators are that sockeye were still moving into the Cook Inlet.
Shields said it was possible that the sockeye run to the Kenai River could be late and those fish could push into the river in August — similar to a run Fish and Game managers saw in 2006 when they closed commercial fishing for the last two weeks of July, only to see 1.5 million sockeye swam up the river in August.
“It’s very difficult to stop them at that time and we put a large number of fish in the river and exceeded our escapement goal. The dipnetters were gone, a lot of the commercial folks were gone and it’s just hard to harvest them,” he said.
Commercial drift gillnetting is closed within one mile of the Kenai Peninsula shoreline north of the Kenai River and within 1.5 miles of the shoreline south of the Kenai River. All of the king salmon restrictions expire on July 31 — the regulatory end of the late run of Kenai River king salmon and the close of the king salmon sport fishery.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at email@example.com.