Commercial setnet fishermen pick salmon from nets in Cook Inlet. While last year was a good year for fishers, next year's forecast is less optimistic.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
This year likely will be a tough one for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen.
According to forecast models released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the total sockeye return for the upper inlet is 3.6 million fish, with an estimated harvest by all user groups of roughly 2.1 million fish. That’s a far cry from last season, when commercial fishermen alone harvested 5.1 million sockeye.
The low numbers are mainly the result of a poor return of sockeye to the Kenai River, which is the largest-producing system in the inlet. According to Fish and Game research biologist Mark Willette, the forecast reflects a poor expected return of 5-year-old fish to the Kenai.
“The forecast was based on fry models for the 5-year-old fish,” Willette said. “We had below-average abundance in Kenai and Skilak lakes for this fry year.”
Because 5-year-old fish make up approximately 60 to 70 percent of any year’s run, Willette said 2006 likely will be a down year, with an estimated 1.8 million fish expected to return to the Kenai.
Although the Kenai is expected to be down, the Kasilof River likely will be a bright spot for commercial fishermen again this year. Willette’s forecast is for nearly 1 million fish to return to that system, which has seen above-average returns for the past several years.
A good year on the Kasilof coupled with expected poor returns on both the Kenai and Susitna systems to the north could mean conflicts between fishermen are higher than usual this season.
Fish and Game management biologist Jeff Fox said that fishermen south of the Blanchard Line (a regulatory line halfway between the Kenai and Kasilof) could see a solid year, while drift fishermen and setnetters north of the line may end up getting shut out of the action.
“It’s going to be really difficult if there’s a lot of fish in one system and not a lot 15 miles up the way,” he said.
Fox said the upcoming season is expected to open normally, but that he plans to manage fishermen conservatively given the poor expected returns.
“It pretty much starts you out in a conservative frame of mind,” he said. “We will probably be acting fairly early and fairly restrictively.”
Feeling the brunt of management actions likely will be northern district drift fishermen.
“The drifters will likely be restricted to the east side fairly early,” he said. “The northern district may see closures earlier than they’re used to.”
Fox said emergency openings and additional hours of fishing time will be restricted until managers are confident that adequate numbers of fish have escaped into the major river systems of the upper inlet.
The restrictions on fishing time, Fox said, likely will mean a long and difficult season for managers and fishermen alike.
“There will not be a lot of happy people,” he said.
Matt Tunseth is a freelance writer who lives in Kenai.
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