The new Kenai River catch-and-release rules imposed, then delayed, by the Alaska Board of Fisheries likely would not have changed the Department of Fish and Game's Monday decision to close the river to king salmon fishing.
According to biologists, the run has been so weak that had a nonretention slot limit been in place all season not nearly enough fish would have been spared to ensure a healthy run. The slot limit would have allowed anglers to keep only kings measuring less than 40 or more than 55 inches.
"As of today, it's the second lowest run on record," said Mark Gamblin, Kenai area biologist with the Department of Fish and Game.
"Catch and release would not have put us in a better position than we are now," Gamblin said.
Just 2,212 kings had passed the department's sonar counter as of Saturday. Gamblin said that's the lowest figure through June 8 since 1998. On average, about 6,000 kings have passed the counter by this time of year.
Biologists are hopeful that closing the river will allow as many salmon as possible to reach their spawning grounds.
"We considered catch and release as an option. Our concern was that there was just too much uncertainty. We felt compelled to close (the river)," Gamblin said.
In March, the Board of Fisheries passed a regulation that would have imposed a nonretention slot limit on kings measuring between 40 and 55 inches. Additionally, the board said all kings shorter than 55 inches caught between June 10 and July 1 would have to be released.
At the time, the board said the measure was imposed to add stability and predictability to the early run king season. However, the board delayed the rules for one year because of a public outcry against catch-and-release fishing.
This year marks the seventh in the past 14 that Fish and Game has had to take emergency action to protect the early run of Kenai kings. The department has the authority to restrict fishing whenever it appears escapement goals won't be met.
Actions taken to protect the run in the past have ranged from banning the use of bait to closing certain sections of the river to allowing only "trophy" kings to be kept.
Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the catch-and-release measure was adopted to avoid further endangering an already threatened run of fish, as well as give anglers some predictability in the early run fishery.
"Our association took the position that this run has trouble," Huber said. "What we said was manage (the early run) on a catch-and-release basis."
Huber said he didn't think catch and release could have prevented the closure. He did note, however, that had the regulations been in place, more of this year's kings would have escaped to spawn instead of being caught.
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