Each summer for the past several years, Kenai River anglers have noticed that the river’s famous king salmon are both fewer and smaller.
The trend has held all over the state: fewer kings are coming back, and the ones that do are smaller and younger, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game research. A variety of causes have been cited, ranging from increased predation to water temperatures to damaged in-stream spawning habitat.
On the Kenai River, where king salmon drive the tourism industry in large part, the concern for the future of the early and late runs of king salmon has been loud. Stakeholders have a variety of ideas for how to conserve the fish for the future, and many are asking the state Board of Fisheries to change management policies during the upcoming 2017 Upper Cook Inlet cycle meeting.
Though many of the approximately 171 proposals for Upper Cook Inlet are related to king salmon indirectly, 13 proposals are submitted directly related to early run king salmon and 19 for late run.
The slot limit management tool, which prohibits retention of king salmon between certain lengths, is under fire in several of the proposals.
“Whatever programs have been successful have all been based on (the concept of), ‘Quit killing the big ones,’” said Ed Schmitt, the chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, a group representing private anglers. “That allows your best spawners to spawn.”
The Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition has proposed eliminating the slot limit on the early run and setting a maximum size for harvestable king salmon at less than 42 inches long. The theory is simple: anglers like to harvest big kings, and if they continue to harvest them, there won’t be any left to spawn. Big king salmon in the river tend to be disproportionately female because they cannot spawn until they reach a larger size than males.
“Future demand on our fishery resources is certain to increase over time so it is incumbent on us to protect and provide sustainability for these resources in the best way we can as regulators looking out for their wellbeing,” the group wrote in its proposal.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game plans to recommend a big-fish goal for Kenai River king salmon during the upcoming Upper Cook Inlet meeting as well, according to a memo submitted to the board Nov. 14. The inriver sonar can better detect bigger fish, allowing for more accurate counting, and requiring that a certain portion of the goal be large fish ensures that not all the fish escaping into the river are small.
Several others also suggested changes to the bag limits. Soldotna-based guide Greg Brush submitted a proposal that would add an “over/under” limit to the current annual limit of two king salmon from Cook Inlet, requiring that only one be a large fish, though the Board of Fisheries could decide on the specific size limit, he wrote.
“While managers may contend that they are not totally sure of the reasons for the decline of the big fish, one common sense fact remains: right now, every big fish that reaches the spawning beds improves our odds of this ‘big fish’ resource rebounding, he wrote.“
The Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition also proposed changing the bag limit to only allow one of the of the annual limit to come from the Kenai River before July 1.
Three proposals also suggest closing off sections of the Kenai River for early run king salmon fishing. The Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition wants to close the river from approximately 300 yards downstream of Slikok Creek up to Skilak Lake. A proposal from Cooper Landing resident Heather Pearson suggests closing it above the lower boundary of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, which falls just upstream from the Moose Range Meadows area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is proposing closing the river between the lower outlet of Skilak Lake and the mouth of the Killey River.
All mention the need to provide additional habitat protections for mainstem-spawning king salmon.
Fish and Wildlife writes that the area it proposes to close does not have significant numbers of anglers and is used by a relatively small number of fish, and because it has been closed by emergency orders since 2011, anglers aren’t likely to notice much of a difference. The agency expresses concern for harvest of early run king salmon in the future because recent research has shown that their spawn timing seems to be the same as late run king salmon in the mainstem, meaning that they are present at the same time, although they are different stocks.
“Current genetic information does not allow for finer-scale management of Chinook Salmon that spawn in the main-stem Kenai River,” the agency wrote in its proposal. “However, given what we know about current abundance and observed declining trends in size and age, a cautionary approach to management is appropriate and prudent.”
Dwight Kramer, a board member of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, said too many anglers fish on the king salmon spawning beds in the middle river, reducing the fishes’ chances to spawn. When more anglers fish lower in the river, the fish are going a variety of places; when anglers hit up the spawning beds at that part of the river, the fish “are pretty much home,” he said. This year, when both king salmon runs improved, the group was concerned that Fish and Game leaped too readily to open up the fishery to retention, he said.
“We felt that the department last year when they opened the season was too concerned about opportunity and not conservation when they opened it to bait up to Skilak Lake and any size fish,” he said.
Schmitt said it’s a reasonable proactive measure that will ensure that the fish have a chance to spawn before the population is too far gone.
“I would argue that by conserving the fish and being a little more cautious rather than hammering them so hard, when you look at what the human interaction has been, they need to (both conserve and allow public access),” he said. “I’m not saying deny people opportunities, but you can’t prosecute a resource until it’s all gone and then say, ‘Rats, I wish we’d done it differently.’”
Several proposals suggest a different approach to opening king salmon season as well. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association submitted a detailed process for opening king salmon fishing in the river based on escapement goals. Two guides — Brush and Soldotna guide Mark Wackler — also suggested “phase-in” approaches that begin the king salmon season conservatively with catch-and-release only, no bait, single-hook and artificial lures only.
KRSA’s proposal would base openings on escapement goal achievement. If the spawning escapement is projected to be less than the lower end of the optimal escapement goal, anglers could only retain king salmon less than 20 inches long downstream of Skilak Lake. If the projection falls within the range, of the goal, only king salmon less than 30 inches could be retained, gear would be limited to no bait, barbless, single-hook, artificial lures, and those who retain a king salmon less than 30 inches could continue to fish for king salmon.
If the escapement is projected to exceed the range, the proposal would open retention to king salmon of all sizes, allow the use of bait and allow anglers who retain one king salmon less than 30 inches per day in addition to daily and annual bag limits could continue to fish for king salmon.
The proposal both provides a reasonable structure for managing king salmon based on run size and encourages anglers to harvest small kings, which tend to be male, said Ricky Gease, the executive director of KRSA. The proposal does away with the slot limit as well.
“We’ve tried to create a system where there’s a lower return, there’s a harvestable surplus … you have a harvest without impacting the big fish,” he said.
The organization supports Fish and Game’s proposed transition to a big-fish goal because it will help promote accuracy and reduce the additional cost of netting to check data, he said. Anglers can still get an opportunity to harvest some king salmon, too.
Wackler, who runs his business as a catch-and-release-only for king salmon, said the step-up process would ensure that the goals are met before opening up the run to harvest. He said his business hasn’t been very impacted by only allowing catch-and-release and that clients understand the reason for it. If more people were conservation minded all the time, it would help keep the fish runs healthy, rather than responding with conservation measures only when the runs are down, he said.
“I think people are more and more willing to least not ask for more,” he said. “... (Guides) are worried about losing money ... but if they look at it the way I did, it’s a short-term sacrifice for a long-term gain.”
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.