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Commercial fishery harvest projected at 700,000 fish

Posted: Thursday, February 18, 2010

For those who fish commercially on the Kenai River, this summer might be an ideal time to relocate.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates this year's sockeye salmon run in the Kenai to be 1.7 million, a 45-percent drop from the past 20-year average of 3.1 million, according to its 2010 preliminary forecast for Upper Cook Inlet reds.

For runs less than 2 million, the Kenai River's escapement goal is between 650,000 and 850,000. Last year, personal use and sport fishermen harvested a combined 400,000 sockeye below the sonar site at Mile 19, said Pat Shields, Fish and Game assistant manager of Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.

Let's assume Fish and Game's estimates are correct. If the personal use and sport numbers mirror last year's and the escapement goal is reached, fewer than 1 million reds will be left for commercial harvest in the Kenai River.

"If it is correct, it leaves around 700,000 fish available for the commercial fishery" -- if 750,000 account for escapement -- "which is a very, very poor harvest," Shields said.

Fish and Game believes overescapement in past years is a major reason for the low 2010 return.

"For Kenai River sockeye salmon, we believe the most likely reason for the small return that is expected for 2010 is a result of over escapement for 2005," Shields said.

Also expected to decrease are the number of drift net commercial fishermen.

In 2009, 402 out of a registered 570 drift boats reported a harvest, Shields said. Out of the 738 setnet permits issued, 467 fishermen reported a harvest. Setnetters numbers typically remain consistent, whereas driftnet fishermen tend to ebb and flow with the size of the predicted run, Shields said.

"We just see a lot more variability than in the east side setnet fisheries," he said of the driftnetters.

Last year, Kenai River dipnetters harvested a record-high 340,000 reds. The previous high was attained in 2005, when 295,000 sockeye were harvested. In 2005, the total run estimate was 5.5 million for the Kenai. In 2009, it was 2.4 million.

"We had 45,000 more fish that were harvested on a run that was half the size," Shields said.

The Kasilof River, too, saw a substantial increase in the number of reds harvested by dipnetters.

Last year, a record-high 73,000 were harvested, a 17,000 fish increase from the previous high in 2006.

The Kasilof River gillnet harvest was 26,650.

"It was an above average harvest, but it wasn't a record," Shields said.

The sockeye forecast for the Kasilof River is 901,000 for 2010, a 6-percent decrease from the 20-year average of 958,000. In 2009, the total run in the Kasilof was 817,000. Fish and Game came in just under the high end of its optimum escapement goal of 150,000 to 300,000, as the final escapement was 297,000. The Kenai's final escapement hit the middle of the 650,000 to 850,000 range.

"We ended up with both goals in both rivers, which is good," Shields said.

Two consecutive commercial fishing days were closed last season to reach escapement goals. The east side setnet fishery and the central district gillnet fishery were closed on July 27 and 30.

For much of the season, setnetters were permitted to fish one-half mile off of the beach south of the Blanchard line -- the Kasilof-Kenai harvest area dividing line -- to the Ninilchik River. This action, outlined in the management plan, is used to harvest Kasilof reds in order to slow escapement.

An emergency order was also issued last July, allowing dipnetting from the shoreline from Fish and Game markers on Cook Inlet beaches upstream to the Sterling Highway bridge, due to a strong return of sockeye in the Kasilof.

Mike Nesper can be reached at mike.nesper@peninsulaclarion.com.



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