The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is issuing an emergency order that will temporarily prohibit fishermen from removing rainbow trout from waters between the mouth of the Kenai River and an area near the inlet of Skilak Lake, in an effort to the reduce spawning fish mortality.
The emergency order includes the mouth of the Kenai River to Skilak Lake and Skilak Lake within a one-half mile radius of the Kenai River inlet, and will be in effect May 2-June10.
It is already illegal to target, retain or possess rainbow trout during this time period, but the emergency order will take protections one step further by requiring fishermen who incidentally catch rainbow trout to unhook and release the fish without lifting them from the water.
The emergency order was created as a result of public pressure to do more to protect the fish, said George Pappas, area management biologist for Fish and Game.
“I think the public is on board with protecting the spawning rainbows,” he said.
Although it may be tempting to hoist a rainbow trout above the water to take a picture, removing the fish from the water during the closure can stress it at a time when it most needs its strength to reproduce. Fishermen who lift rainbow trout out of the water risk dropping the fish in a boat or on shore, further stressing the fish or even killing it.
In addition to reducing fish mortality, the emergency order will also make enforcement of the rainbow trout closure easier, since anyone seen holding a trout above the water will be out of compliance.
Pappas said last year people wrote, called and dropped into the Fish and Game office to share their concerns over illegal targeting of rainbow trout during the spawning season.
The new restriction aims to reduce the illegal targeting of rainbow trout, but it also aims to reduce mortality among fish caught incidentally.
Fishing regulations for rainbow trout are nearly identical to those for Dolly Varden with one notable difference: fishermen can fish for Dolly Varden year-round. Avoiding rainbow trout while fishing for Dolly Varden is difficult at best.
“A rainbow and a Dolly will hit the same fly at the same spot at the same time,” Pappas said.
The emergency order offers a new approach to protecting the area’s spawning rainbow trout and does not further restrict fishermen targeting Dolly Varden, he said.
“It took several months of pursuing different regulatory avenues to come up with a conservative restriction,” he said.
Although the prohibition on removing fish from the water is new to the area’s rainbow trout fishery, similar regulations have been passed to protect other sport-caught fish. Fishermen targeting king salmon in the Kenai River, for example, are prohibited from removing the fish from the water unless they plan to keep it.
In addition to reducing handling mortality, keeping an incidentally-caught rainbow trout below the water can directly reduce the impact on spawning, if the fish is caught while spawning.
A fish that is caught when it is in a full spawning phase, may drop milt or eggs if lifted out of the water.
“That definitely detracts from their spawning success,” Pappas said.
Fish and Game recommends fishermen target Dolly Varden during the closure and fish downstream of spawning rainbow trout where the Dolly Varden tend to hold and feed on drifting eggs.
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