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Longtime fisherman gives insight on salmon decline

Posted: August 12, 2013 - 9:06am

I have spent most of my 73 years as a sports fisherman, having fished the Kenai River and the salt waters of lower Cook Inlet since the early 1960’s. Therefore, I read with keen interest the articles and letters that appear in your paper discussing the decline of the King Salmon.

There are several reasons given and some no doubt contribute to the reduction in their numbers. Often cited causes are setnetters, drifters, trawlers and adverse ocean conditions. But rarely discussed is the effect of sports fishing on kings that have reached their spawning beds in the river. Unlike sockeye salmon, which spawn around Skilak Lake and the upper river, kings spawn mostly in large holes in the Kenai River from the Keys area just below Skilak Lake downstream roughly to Eagle Rock. Kings in the spawning mode become highly agitated and strike when a perceived predator (a lure) enters their spawning hole.

For many years there were two robust king salmon runs in the river. The first was the June run. Beginning in the 1960’s, this run was expanding rapidly (no more fish traps after statehood) and its abundance was the delight of Anchorage and Peninsula sportsmen. The run began collapsing in the 1990’s, even though commercial setnetting and drift gillnetting had been discontinued in May and June for decades. If gillnetting is not to blame, did adverse ocean conditions and trawling cause the decline during this period? Not likely. Remember, the Magnuson-Stevens Act became law in the 1970’s, establishing the 200 mile coastal zone, it stopped high seas drift netting and prescribed trawling activity. This points strongly to over fishing the spawning holes as a major cause. At the time, the Alaska Department of Fish & Game said that the river was being managed mainly for the red salmon run, not the June kings.

This brings me to the July kings. Think about the timing of this run as a parabolic curve with one tail in late June and the other in early August -- meaning that the bulk of the run happens in mid to late July with the early and late fish arriving at other times. These mid-July fish are now virtually gone -- largely being blamed on setnetters, and other causes. But, lo and behold, the August stragglers have now become what used to be the July run. The parabolic curve has shifted to the late July early August time frame. Why? No small wonder. August sport fishing for kings has been closed for decades, leaving the August fish as the only successful spawners. The Department says the escapement is being met -- but in August. Again it is hard NOT to point to the June/July sport fishing in the spawning holes as the main cause of the decline.

It is clear to me that a medium sized river on the Kenai Peninsula can’t continue to be the king salmon sports fishing mecca of the world with hundreds of fishing guides leading thousands of tourists to the best place on the river to kill a “trophy” king. The Department needs to take a much more activist stance -- limiting the taking of kings once they arrive in the spawning holes. If the legendary Kings of the Kenai are to remain in existence for future enjoyment, we need to look less to our own personal and commercial interests and join together in an effort to ensure that this magnificent race of giant salmon survive.

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pengy 08/12/13 - 11:29 am
Good points made. However,

Good points made. However, when you look at the poor returns where there are hatchery king salmon it seems obvious that there's bigger problems in the ocean and something is preventing their return as adults. How else can you explain the closure of Ship Creek? Too many guides and tourists catching the smolt before they migrate out? What about the poor return on the early Kasilof run of kings? Too many smolt being caught?

5akman 08/12/13 - 04:59 pm
Kenai Classic

.... and now the Kenai classic has been changed to August to target "silvers" with bait. Why don't a bunch of folks who see through KRSA's smoke and mirrors show, get their boats on the river the weekend of the "new" classic and video tape the catching of what I'd assume to be a tremendous number of kings!

spybot 08/12/13 - 06:01 pm
Number and size decrease across state

The number and size of king salmon have decreased across many returns in Alaska - it is not limited to the Kenai River.

As noted in other comments, hatchery kings are not doing well either on the Kasilof and Ship Creek - hatchery kings by definition totally avoids all freshwater habitat issues.

With ADFG's move to lower the escapement goals of both the early (June) and late (July) runs of Kenai River king salmon, some are arguing that in the past decade there were too many king spawning in the river, not too few.

The early run kings are mostly tributary spawners, meaning they spawn not in the Kenai River but in the Killey, Funny, and other smaller tribs where no one is fishing except for the bears. These tribs have fishing closure areas to prevent anglers from fishing on the kings that are staging at the mouths of these tributaries.

rwhobby 08/14/13 - 01:26 pm
Good points made

That's the big picture for sure, the trawl fishery King salmon bycatch has been reduced Substantially the last couple of years, which is going to be a big help in the over all for the Species. The Kenai river can't handle the pressure from all the guides and non-guided boats on the river year after year without a decline, which now is a problem. Everybody is Blaming the commercial fishing industry, but we don't look at the sport fishery at all. Kind of a blind eye it makes money for the community and tourism and put the resource on the back burner. It's time to look at the guide industry and make some major changes, if you want to see numbers change that's the only way you are going to see it. The commercial fishing industry keeps getting more regulations, but the number are not changing cause the sport fishing industry keeps increasing. It's time to make major changes in the sport fishery.

Seafarer 08/14/13 - 02:35 pm
Finally! An Intelligent Riverhead!

All of you talking about the decline in other rivers don't get the jist of the letter. He specifies the KENAI, not the others. Overfishing the spawning holes, too many guides, and the KRSA is what's killing the Kenai Kings. Great fish should be revered, not viewed as anything except profits. Great Fish only come around once or twice in a lifetime. Lay off the sportfishing and grow your own Great Fish. Prohibit the Kenai Classic. No one group controls the river. That would be against Alaska's Constitution. Ban them starting now.

robert white
robert white 08/14/13 - 02:51 pm

easy answer... no bait on the kenai.. ever... for anything.. problem solved not only for kings but for silvers and the fishery thats also getting destroyed, trophy rainbows!

Heffo 08/16/13 - 02:08 pm
Good Article on Main Stem King Spawners

I totally agree. No fishing for kings in the main stem from Naptown to eagle rock. You can fish for other species without targeting kings.

If abundance comes back, then limited fishing in the main stem, otherwise let these fish reproduce.

Jeff M.

radiokenai 08/16/13 - 02:51 pm

No wonder our river is in peril! If you want to see the problem of the River call the Kenai River Classic at 907-262-8588 and speak the director Ricky Gease.

During our conversation, I could hear him "Huff & Sigh" over my comments and concerns about the Kenai River Classic and over promotion of the Kenai River. In fact, he spouted out "What have you done to support the River!" At which time I replied "Not Fished out the Kings, not to mention that I donate and support the Kenai Watershed Forum! A TRUE CONSERVATION GROUP!

Mr. Gease doesn't have a clue on the pulse of the Kenai...all he see's is $$$ "spoken in his own words of the profits brought in. I suggested that he take lessons from the administrators at Kenai Watershed Forum since their heart is in right direction.

I can see why this KRC is nothing but an exploited source of income to feed their non profit coffers.

Mr. Gease blathered on about how the KRC is all about conservation...but when I asked him (that is when I could get a word in) "How is promoting a Nationwide Fish Derby, which brings in thousands of anglers and guides on the River,...Considered Conservation?" His answer? Escapement numbers and overall demise of Kings on the Kasilof and other Rivers. I had to pull his beak to remind him "We are discussing the Kenai..."

I must say, Mr Gease struck me as a profiteering bafoon who is in a panic because his Goose has layed her last golden egg!


ziggyak 08/18/13 - 02:56 am
Fishing on the Kenai

Growing up here I remember the big runs of the 60s and 70s. The Kenai was a real habitat for fish with undercut banks and fallen trees every where, both provided cool areas for the fry to get out of the heat of the sunny days and the fallen trees provided safety to hide in. Then Harry Gains caught that darn big king and the guides kicked in with all the save the Kenai groups cleaning the river, all the snags and fallen trees were removed and the sports fishermen stomped the banks to mush. How can the Kenai be saved? It's being loved/managed to death, limit guides (resident guides only)and out of state fishing, establish no fishing zones in the areas that Roy pointed out. Or stop all fishing for three to seven years. Or limit it to lottery drawn fishing only.

potomac 08/18/13 - 09:09 pm
Thanks Roy

I hope other folks listen though I doubt it, you are right on and any idiot should of seen this coming but big bucks, politics , got in the way, so long Kenai kings it was fun knowing ya, thanks a bunch guides ,,and the government folks ,good luck explaining how you shot these fish in a barrel for years

Suss 08/20/13 - 11:41 am
Tragedy of the commons

Interesting writings about this same dilemma, cows vs. land.

"Tragedy of the commons", how a collective group of users ruin their own sustainability.

Concerned Citizen
Concerned Citizen 08/22/13 - 07:31 am
Good Job Roy

Roy I think you are spot on. There are some other issues to be added to the long list of challenges King Salmon are facing. Is it ironic or directly related that the decline in King Salmon statewide is perfectly timed with the increased number of pink salmon the State is planting annually. The word is the State is planting 1 Billion pink salmon fry this year alone. Those pink salmon surely directly compete with the King Salmon for food fish in the ocean. Is the State incidentally contributing to destroying the King Salmon runs statewide while building fake runs for commercial fishermen to catch? Seems like when people get involved in throwing off the natural balance in the ocean there is a price.

Another issue is the number of Rainbow Trout in the river. The timing of Fish and Game declaring a catch and release rule on trout in the Kenai was right about the same time as the decline of the King Salmon stocks. Don't trout eat king eggs and fry? I am not an expert in this area but it seems you need to have a balance much like wolves and bears versus moose.

As a member of the Kenai Community and a sport fishermen I admit that while I am pro sport fishing I recognize the importance of commercial salmon fishing to this peninsula. I have always hated knowing there were out of State Guides backtrolling on the spawning beds telling their clients the reason they were not catching Kings was the Setnetters. Talk about the pot calling the kettle black.

Finally I feel Fish and Game needs to be more proactive instead of waiting till things are devastated before taking action. And quit bowing to politics and start managing our fisheries.

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