Fish forecast looks gloomy

Posted: Friday, April 17, 2009

If salmon runs in the Kenai River are predicted to be slightly below average, does that mean anglers will have to keep their lines in the water for slightly longer than average too?

Photo By Joseph Robertia
Photo By Joseph Robertia
How many sockeye salmon, silvers and kings, such this 75-pound Kenai River king caught back in 2008, will return to local rivers this year? The numbers projected by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game may have fishermen fired-up.

Officials at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game probably can't answer the latter part of that question, but runs for the reds and kings in the Kenai are expected to be lower than normal this year.

For kings, Tim McKinley, research supervisor for the sportfish division of Fish and Game in Soldotna, said he's forecasting an early run of 16,000, and a late run of 36,000 to 37,000 fish.

Average runs for the Kenai are 16,000 in the early run and 40,000 in the late.

"Forecast" is still the key word here, he noted.

He said actual yields are usually within 10 to 20 percent of Fish and Game forecasts, but when dealing with numbers in the thousands, those percentages can equal quite a few fish.

Runs are forecasted by looking at previous year's returns.

Each summer five different age classes return to the river.

Based on how many fish came through the previous year, forecasters can apply formulas that model mortality at sea to determine approximately how many fish from each age range will return the following summer.

McKinley simplified it, comparing it to forecasting grade-school class sizes.

"If you know how many third-graders you had last year, than you know about how many fourth-graders you'll have this year," he said.

Kenai reds are forecasted to have a low showing as well this year, numbering around 2.1 million. That's below the 20-year average of 3.3 million.

"These fish were coming off escapement in 2004 which was the second year in a row that we were above the sustainable escapement goal (SEG) range," said Mark Willette, research project leader for the Commercial Division of Fish and Game.

"We had 1.1 million spawners then, and the upper end of our SEG is 800,000," he said.

When the river gets flooded with spawners, as it did in the summer of '04, the corresponding increase in the number of fry can impact the river system's ability to support the young fish.

"In the Kenai the abundance of spawners the previous year affects the current year. Basically when you have two large escapements back to back you tend to see lower returns," he said.

The impact was noted in the fall of 2005.

"We had a fall fry population of about 40 million in '05, which was largest population we've ever seen, but the smolt abundance from the following spring showed they may not have survived at a normal rate," Willete said.

He also noted that the size of fry in Skilak Lake in the fall of '05 were the smallest ever seen.

At the same time, Willete said that just because the smolt count in the spring of '06 was lower than the fry count the previous fall, didn't necessarily mean there wasn't the possibility of error.

"We're not ruling out the possibility that the 40 million fry may have survived and our assessments haven't picked it up," he said.

Dante Petri can be reached at

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