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Saving the kings

Posted: November 7, 2013 - 4:24pm  |  Updated: November 8, 2013 - 3:23pm

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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kenai123
1312
Points
kenai123 11/09/13 - 08:17 pm
1
1
Proposal 219 would do nothing to solve our king problems.

Proposal 219 like all other proposed local king solutions, would definitely do nothing to help our king salmon. This is not a local king salmon problem, the problem is statewide, all king runs have been negatively impacted by the problem. It is completely illogical to suggest that a local restriction solution will somehow correct a non-local problem. You cannot solve this saltwater problem with a freshwater solution.

Our kings are currently being assaulted from many directions at the same time and the results has been devastating. (1) We have a massive amount of "drone" hatchery salmon out there in the saltwater (3 - 1) drone/wild ratio consuming the prey wild juvenal kings require to survive. Thus we currently have a great reduction in the primary prey for juvenal kings (crab larvae>1/4 inch). (2) We have a dramatic and recent increase in marine mammals which prey on the things wild kings feed on. (3) We have very large commercial Pollock by-catch of the wild adult kings which somehow manage to escape the preceding factors. (4) We then have a very large commercial salmon fishery (targeting and also by-catching) most of the adult wild kings which manage to survive the earlier big three interceptors. Drone salmon, king prey reduction, increase in marine mammals and a huge commercial fishery are killing off most of the surviving wild adult kings.

Most of these factors were not around from 1959 - 1980 therefore our king populations surged statewide from 1980 - 1995. You cannot save our kings by taking a "shot in the dark" placing restrictions on specific local areas when the true problem is non-local. There are zero freshwater common denominators here and many, many saltwater common denominators.

If you really want to "save the kings" here is how to do it. Immediately close all saltwater commercial crab, herring, kelp, plankton and salmon fisheries. Then monitor salmon returns for 5 - 10 years and if substantial increased salmon returns are not achieved, then begin "shot in the dark" local restriction attempts like the freshwater angler shut-downs. Freshwater anglers are not the most likely problem here, they represent a very small part of the user access factor. We have many rivers with zero users but they still have the same king problem. Public user restrictions are only "cart before the horse" solutions. These type of solutions would actually do more harm than good because people would expect them to resolve our king problems. Local solutions cannot resolve non-local problems. When you claim that local restrictions will somehow resolve non-local problems, you are ignoring the facts and actually making the king problem worst.

borninak
657
Points
borninak 11/09/13 - 10:08 pm
1
1
Brilliant Hypocrisy

Kenai 123 has a great plan to pad his Commercial Kenai River Guide pocketbook. What a great idea! Everbody quit commercial fishing except me and things will be wonderful.

kenai123
1312
Points
kenai123 11/10/13 - 03:10 am
1
0
borninak

You will never be able to resolve our king salmon problems if you ignore the fact that all of our king runs statewide have the same problem as the Kenai River. Instead of investigating why rivers with zero anglers still have the same king problem, you attempt to calculate how user groups may either win or lose.
This is deliberate and calculated ignorance.

borninak
657
Points
borninak 11/10/13 - 07:52 am
2
0
Kenai 123

The only ignorance is your belief that the intense pressure and development placed on the Kenai River isn't causing major problems. That is why the board of fish will be putting every one of your "proposals" in the garbage, because you are so over the top hypocritical and ridiculous with your every assertion. Setnetting has a history of fishing on AND sustaining salmon runs for over 100 years, and now you suddenly believe its all the problem. If you want anybody to take you seriously, your going to need to snap out of your fantasy world and present something better than everyone but me killing a fish is causing all the problems.

Raoulduke
3055
Points
Raoulduke 11/11/13 - 07:07 pm
0
0
Saving

It is most of the time extremely difficult for me to distinguish between discussion's about the Conservation of the King's,and the constant bickering that is intended to be a discussion about the Conservation of the King's.Quit placing blame,and come up with some viable idea's.

Unglued
228
Points
Unglued 11/11/13 - 07:52 pm
0
0
Viable ideas

Depends on your definition of "viable," Raoulduke. The proposal to close the Kenai River upstream from Soldotna in July would definitely improve the king salmon escapement, especially if it was paired with Bob Penney's idea to close Cook Inlet to set gill-netting.

It occurs to me that some people, when asked how to solve the king salmon problem on the Kenai, have a knee-jerk response: "It's not just the Kenai, it's every king salmon river in the state." To those people I say, yes, but the Kenai has a few other problems, some of which make it difficult to know what might help to restore its king salmon runs. They haven't been healthy since the 1970s, when both guided fishing and set gill-net fishing began several years of steadily escalated fishing pressure. With so much money at stake, neither one of these user groups is likely to give an inch.

It's been the same story since the beginning: people fighting over natural resources until there's nothing left to fight about.

FrozenNorth
56
Points
FrozenNorth 11/11/13 - 08:32 pm
0
0
King Salmon

Many, but not all, king salmon river systems around the State are suffering from low productivity. In other words, they may be meeting minimum escapement goals but not producing many surplus fish for us to catch in subsistence, sport or commercial fisheries. I think the Kenai falls into this category for sure. On the other hand, the Nushagak river in Bristol Bay has been having fine king returns.

Since the low productivity is so widespread, it is almost certainly a marine ecosystem issue. The relationship between chinook abundance throughout its range, and the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO) is one that should be looked at and studied more thoroughly. For example, why is the Columbia River now having the biggest fall chinook run in 70 years? It is generally accepted that the North Pacific is in a "negative" or cold PDO phase, and this shift likely occurred around 2001-2002. There is some evidence that chinook abundance is correlated with the PDO...in other words, during a warm phase (ie 1979-2000) chinook are abundant in the northern range of their distribution (Alaska) and less abundant in their southern range (OR/WA/Cal.) This then "switches" when the PDO signal goes from warm to cold.

Closing all commercial salmon and crab marine fisheries to protect Kenai kings is as laughable as it is absurd. I don't think we'll find a bogey man that we can point our fingers at and say "if we just get that guy, everything will be fine". I don't think its that simplistic. The Kenai certainly has a host of in-river issues that don't make the over-arching picture any better.

Unglued
228
Points
Unglued 11/12/13 - 10:40 am
0
0
Frozen North and the PDO

Studying the PDO's effect on salmon runs is a great idea, if we're talking about creating jobs for scientists. But what happens when (or more likely if) we finally learn all there is to know about the effect of the PDO and other causes of cycles in marine life? To the best of my knowledge, there is little or nothing we can do about ocean currents and temperatures. Please explain how that knowledge will put more king salmon—or any kind of fish—in our rivers. Maybe you could give an example that this humble Joe Fisherman could understand.

FrozenNorth
56
Points
FrozenNorth 11/12/13 - 12:15 pm
0
0
Unglued

The State has recently allocated $10 million for king salmon research, and this might be an area to look at. But, I guess my point is that you might not be able to do anything. At least anything that's really substantive. That's certainly not what people want to hear, as it seems to be human nature to need to find someone to blame for what is perhaps an artifact of Mother Nature.

IF low king productivity around the State is due to poor environmental conditions (such as negative PDO) which, as you say, we have little control over, then we have to try to get at least our minimum escapements into our river systems and "set the stage" for better returns when conditions are more favorable. Until then we may have to live with scant surpluses for our king salmon fisheries. How that small surplus gets divided up is the 64 million dollar question.

Carver
1133
Points
Carver 11/15/13 - 10:25 am
0
0
Not even . . .

". . virtually everyone living on the Kenai Peninsula depends to some degree on healthy runs of this one salmon, the king."
*******************

Totally disagree!

The entire chinook sport-fishery could disappear tomorrow with barely a ripple.

The sockeye fishery—commercial, sport, & PU—dwarfs the king fishery in terms of economic impact.

Paul Dale
69
Points
Paul Dale 11/16/13 - 05:37 pm
0
0
Saving the Kings

I think Les is correct on the value of increased protection for spawning kings, if it would have been in place twenty years ago, we might still be bemoaning the relative downturn in chinook volumes, but perhaps not the severity of tributary stock losses and the loss of larger kings. Carver is also on to something new in our fish pond, the displacement of chinook economic and social values by sockeye. It certainly has become the Peoples Fish.

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