Saving the kings

During the 2013 fishing season, when both sport and commercial fishing were restricted to ensure that enough king salmon made it up the river to spawn, the importance of healthy king salmon runs should’ve become clear to all concerned.

To me, this was the year that realization really hit home that virtually everyone living on the Kenai Peninsula depends to some degree on healthy runs of this one salmon, the king. Whether other salmon runs are weak or strong, life goes on with some semblance of normalcy. But when king runs are weak, nobody’s happy.

Ensuring that every river gets adequate spawning escapements for the five species of salmon has become a nightmare for fishery managers and the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Due to the nature of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, where fishing is done with gill nets on mixed stocks, king salmon are taken incidentally to fishing for other salmon species, mainly sockeye. In order to provide adequate spawning escapement of kings, fishery managers sometimes find it necessary to restrict all fishing, not only in-river sport fishing for kings, but also Cook Inlet gill-net fishing for sockeyes. This causes financial distress to some fishermen, who have come to depend on fishing for a livelihood, and anguish to the tens of thousands of us who enjoy fishing for and eating king salmon.

Once in every three years, the Board of Fisheries sits down and tries to make things better for salmon in Upper Cook Inlet by coming up with new regulations. They’re doing it again early next year. Browsing through the proposals for new regulations they’ll be considering for the Kenai River, I came across some real doozies. They include everything from banning fishing from boats from 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. in May, June and July, to dumping in hatchery kings. The Kenai already has so many regulations, you need to have a lawyer with you to fish it. I shudder to think that the fish board might approve a proposal that will do little or no good, and that might even do harm.

However, among the dozens of proposals, a few would actually improve the lot of the river’s king salmon. One such is Proposal No. 219, by the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition. This group’s idea: Close sections of the Kenai River to sport fishing for king salmon during July. “Spawning Conservation Area 1” would be between the Moose River and Skilak Lake, and would be closed to fishing for king salmon from July 1 through July 31. The primary purpose of creating this closed area would be to protect the spawning kings of the early run, numbers of which have severely declined severely in recent years.

According to the proposal, “Funny River weir data indicates about a 70% decline since 2006 and Slikok Creek weir data shows an 80% decline since 2004 with very few females returning. We believe the main stem component of the ER may be in even more peril because they enter the fishery in May and June and are vulnerable to harvest longer than any other segment of the Kenai River king salmon population.”

Present regulations allow anglers to fish in known spawning areas, while the salmon are spawning. Spawning salmon that are paired up and highly territorial when on their spawning redds are at their most vulnerable. They’ll chase anything that approaches them, even something as small as a tiny, artificial salmon egg. These spawning areas are well known, especially by a few guides and local residents, and they are fished hard. Sad to say, 60-pound-plus kings in their purple-red spawning colors are considered “trophies” by anglers who don’t know any better, or who think any large fish gives them bragging rights, no matter how or when it’s fooled into biting.

“Spawning Conservation Area 2,” from the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna to the Moose River, would be closed to fishing for king salmon from July 10 through July 31. Says the proposal about Area 2: “ The Area 2 closure would protect both [early-run] and [late-run] fish that spawn in that area. Roughly 80% of the [early run] are tributary spawners and they are protected once they reach the tributary areas, however, almost all of the [late run] are main stem spawners and there is currently no spawning sanctuary area afforded to them.”

In the past decade or so, I’ve noticed fewer and fewer kings rolling in holes on the Kenai where I used to see “colored-up” kings roll a lot, while waiting to spawn. While this sort of observation means little or nothing to biologists and fishery managers, it means something to me and others who spend time on the river. It means there aren’t as many kings as there used to be. Whatever the reason, fewer kings are surviving to spawn.

Proposal 219 would definitely and significantly increase the number of king salmon that survive to spawn in the Kenai River. I’m all for it.

 

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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