The Kenai River is now a trophy fishery for king salmon. Beginning at 12:01 this morning, restrictions were put in place that requires catch and release for all kings smaller than 52 inches in length. Any fish 52 inches or longer may be kept.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game put the emergency order in place because its projections for escapement would have been less than the minimum of 7,200 without them, said Area Management Biologist Mike Bethe.
"At this point, the in-river estimates remain fairly low and our projections for the total return are declining a little bit," Bethe said.
The department is projecting a total early king run of 9,200 fish. Low catch rates have kept the department from implementing restrictions earlier.
"Through Friday, the catch rate for a guided angler has been about 33 hours per fish, and for an unguided angler about 47 hours per fish," Bethe said. "That compares to a long term average of 12 hours per fish guided and 24 hours per fish unguided."
The catch and release regulations are not sitting well with at least one guide. Ken Lacy, of Ken's Alaskan Tackle, is protesting the move publicly by putting a message on the reader board in front of his shop near the bridge in Soldotna.
"I put on my board, 'Catch, kill, release, effective 6/13, thanks Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Call (26)2-9368,'" Lacy said, reciting the department's phone number.
Lacy said he's already lost $2,400 in business from clients who have canceled their trips scheduled for today, and figures it may cost him $40,000 to $50,000 this season.
"It wouldn't be so bad if they gave us a week, or four or five days notice, but I've got people standing in line," Lacy said. "Nobody wants to pay just for a ride down the river."
Bethe said the department is under no obligation to give much advance notice of emergency orders like this at all, but he does try to give at least 36 hours.
"It's more difficult to get the word out when we make decisions on the weekends," he said. "But we were in a situation where we could not wait to make the decision."
Lacy said the sign is his way of retaliating for the short notice.
"My lawyer says it's OK," Lacy said. "It's on my property and it's freedom of speech."
He also is selling caps and T-shirts with the same message as the sign.
Lacy said he also has problems with the department allowing the largest fish to be kept.
"They've got it backward. By taking out the big ones, you just leave the little ones as breeding stock," he said.
Lacy said he would rather see the river shut down than to have it go to catch and release.
"Fish and Game says only 10 percent of catch and release fish die. I think it's closer to 60 to 70 percent," he said. "I quit the practice of catch and release 10 years ago because it seemed 70 percent of them sunk to the bottom. In my opinion, catch and release kills."
Bethe disputes Lacy's figures and said the department's best estimate, based on studies, is 7 percent mortality. He also emphasized that anglers must not take a king out of the water to measure it, so it has a better chance of surviving.
"I recommend anglers carry a tape measure or construct a measuring board so they can measure their fish without removing it from the water," he said.
As for Lacy's sign, Bethe said he had not seen it as of Monday afternoon.
The emergency order will remain in effect until June 30 -- the transition between the early- and late-run king seasons -- or until a spawning escapement of 7,200 fish is assured. But Bethe isn't optimistic that will happen.
"I doubt we would see enough change at this point to lift the restrictions."
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