In the winter, those looking for a shot at some fresh king salmon can head south to Kachemak Bay and out onto the saltwater to drop a line.
King salmon arrive in the bay and in the salt waters of Cook Inlet during the winter, where they are known as “feeder” king salmon because they are eating and growing. Sport fishermen snag them up for personal consumption and recreation alike, harvesting thousands during the winter months from shore, powerboats, drift boats and kayaks.
This week, the state Board of Fisheries will consider a number of changes to the regulations for sport harvest of king salmon in the winter. They come in conjunction with a progress report from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game detailing genetic sampling being done on sport-caught king salmon in the marine fishery, which will be presented to the board during its Lower Cook Inlet Meeting beginning Wednesday and scheduled to run through Saturday.
The report details genetic and coded wire tag mixed stock analysis conducted between 2014 and 2016. Although the study is not yet finished, the results so far have shown that approximately 99.8 percent of the king salmon sampled in the winter periods of 2014 and 2015 — which the study defines as Oct. 1–March 31 — are stocks from outside Cook Inlet.
During the early summer, from April 1–June 24, Cook Inlet stocks made up approximately 24.7 percent in 2014, 19.5 percent in 2015 and 10.1 percent in 2016, and during the summer, non-Cook Inlet stocks made up 97.9 percent in 2014 and 99 percent in 2015, according to the report.
With more data allaying fears that the winter fishery was targeting Cook Inlet king salmon stocks, which have been declining since 2007, Fish and Game put in a proposal to lift the current 3,000 fish harvest limit from the Cook Inlet winter king fishery. The proposal would also extend the season from Oct. 1 back to Sept. 1 and include all of Cook Inlet to better line up with the end of Cook Inlet king salmon stock migrations and would simplify regulations.
“The guideline harvest level of 3,000 king salmon was established to slow the growth of the sport harvest of king salmon in the marine waters of Lower Cook Inlet,” the proposal states. “If the board’s intent was to limit the harvest of Cook Inlet stocks, then the board may want to consider if an increase should be considered to account for the contribution of nonlocal feeder king salmon harvest in Cook Inlet from September through March.”
Removing that cap is something that the Homer Fish and Game Advisory Committee agrees with, said committee chair Dave Lyon. The cap was set arbitrarily and now that the research has shown that the kings being harvested in the winter fishery aren’t Cook Inlet stocks, it makes sense to take the cap off, he said.
“There’s no point in having that 3,000 cap because it’s not based on science,” he said.
The advisory committee held a separate meeting just to deal with winter king fishery proposals, and it had one of the largest public turnouts Lyon remembered since he has been chair, he said.
Most of the proposals related to the winter king salmon fishery were authored by a single person — Pete Zimmerman of Homer, who wrote in his proposals that he spoke for Cook Inlet Recreational Fishermen. Two of his proposals would extend the fishery by approximately a month on each end — it would begin on Aug. 10 and end on April 30. One would eliminate the annual limit for the marine king salmon fishery south of the Anchor Point Light, two others would eliminate the harvest recording requirement for Alaska residents for marine-caught king salmon taken south of the Anchor Point Light, and three others deal with clarifying that the 3,000-fish guideline harvest limit only applies to stocks of Cook Inlet origin.
The Homer advisory committee largely supported raising the limits on the winter king fishery, though there were concerns from some members, he said. Some had questions about what the socioeconomic repercussions would be after raising the bag limits, and if the fishery would grow beyond capacity because of the relative ease of access — while other areas of the state have winter king fisheries, Kachemak Bay is accessible by road, he said.
“Kachemak Bay is not much bigger than Lake Louise,” he said. “…Would it change anything or not really change anything? A lot of those questions are unanswered.”
One other proposal would set a one king salmon per day, five per year limit on the marine king salmon bag limit. There is currently a two per day bag limit with no annual limit on that fishery. The proposer, Andy Couch, wrote that the board should consider the limit as a precautionary measure because of well-documented Upper Cook Inlet king salmon shortages.
“I do not know how many of the October – March king salmon caught south of the Anchor Point line are destined to Upper Cook Inlet drainages, however, in light of the hardships to Upper Cook Inlet user groups caused by king salmon shortages I believe it may be time to adjust daily and annual king salmon bag limits south of the Anchor Point line,” he wrote.
The proposal didn’t even get discussion before the advisory committee, Lyon said — the members all opposed it.
Fish and Game also submitted two other proposals related to the marine king salmon fishery. One would eliminate the special harvest areas, which span the length of the shore between the mouths of the Anchor River, Stariski Creek, Deep Creek and the Ninilchik River and extend a mile offshore to protect early-run king salmon returning to the rivers, prohibit guides and crew from fishing while guiding and prohibit anglers from fishing for king salmon after harvesting one longer than 20 inches, extending the regulation to Aug. 31. The protected areas around the mouths of the rivers would remain.
Another would eliminate the closed area north of the Ninilchik River along the shore and extend the conservation zone south of the river to include the area north. The third would extend the closure in the area with one mile of the mouths of the four rivers another two weeks, until July 15.
The final proposal would allow fishermen in kayaks or drift boats to continue fishing in the Cook Inlet special harvest areas after they had caught a king salmon 20 inches or longer to allow for additional opportunity.
The Board of Fisheries will hear the proposals at its meeting at the Islands and Oceans Center in Homer from Nov. 30–Dec. 3.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at email@example.com.