State fisheries biologists are predicting a respectable Cook Inlet sockeye salmon run and subsequent harvest this coming summer.
"The sockeye salmon forecast is a little above average," said Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game' Division of Commercial Fisheries.
According to department projections released earlier this month, the total sockeye salmon run is forecast at 6.4 million fish with a harvest expectation of 4.4 to 4.8 million fish.
The return to the Kenai River is forecasted to be 3.9 million, with 929,000 returning to the Kasilof River, 463,000 to the Susitna River, 131,000 to Crescent River, and 105,000 to Fish Creek.
That forecast is a welcome sign for many on the Kenai Peninsula and about a million more than the 2010 sockeye salmon harvest of 3.6 million by all user groups, just slightly below the 20-year average.
Biologists chalked up last year's so-so run to overescapement in 2005. But thanks to a better-than-forecast run to the Kenai River, last year's harvest still turned out to be better than the pre-season forecast that, at 2.3 million, looked rather grim.
Twice as many fish as expected came back to the Kenai last year, most likely due to favorable ocean conditions, Shields said.
Starting this year, Fish and Game will begin counting sockeye salmon escapements on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers using a new dual-frequency identification, or DIDSON, sonar instead of the Bendix sonar technology.
That changeover also means new escapement goals for both rivers.
"The escapement needs are a little bit different in 2011 than they have been in the past," Shields said.
Take the Kenai for example. In the past escapement goals for Kenai late-run sockeye salmon were set at 500,000 to 800,000 fish. Based on the new sonar system that goal changes to 700,000 to 1.2 million salmon.
"The DIDSON actually sees more fish, especially in the Kenai River," he said.
The new escapement goals, which are higher than the ones used with Bendix, are actually about the same in numbers.
"People are going to have to get used to new numbers. They'll seem a lot higher and it is more fish, but we're counting more. We have a tool that counts more," Shields said.
He compared the two systems and different goals to people taking the temperature in Fahrenheit and Celsius.
"It's a different number to represent the same thing," he said. "It somewhat fits the scenario here."
With the upcoming Board of Fish meeting on Upper Cook Inlet beginning next month, there could be some changes to the escapement based on allocation decisions -- the number of fish that can be removed above the sonar -- by the board.
"We're uncertain as to how many fish we need to subtract for escapement," Shields said.
Relationships between adult returns and spawners, adult returns and fry, adult returns and smolts, and adult returns and siblings were used to forecast the return of the sockeye. In most cases, sibling relationships were used.
Shields said this year's forecasted harvest is nearly one million fish above the 20-year average harvest of all user groups of 3.8 million.
Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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