Rick Oldham works to prepare the F/V Kyla K for the approaching commercial salmon fishing season. He said hes fished commercially since 1979 and expects low numbers of fish this season. "My guess is that itll be a weak year," he said.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Although upper Cook Inlet commercial fishermen may be the first to start wringing their hands over weak sockeye run projections, the forecast could be full of dark and dreary days for all sockeye fishery user groups.
“If you throw the pie into the air and start whacking, the pieces are going to be pretty small,” said John McCombs, vice president of the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund.
Forecast models released by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimate the total sockeye return for the upper inlet will be 3.6 million fish, with an estimated harvest by all user groups of roughly 2.1 million fish.
If projections are accurate, 2006 will be a big disappointment after the 2005 year run, when 5.1 million sockeye were harvested by commercial fishermen alone.
However, although commercial fishermen are likely to get hit the hardest, a sockeye run as low as 3.6 million would not go unnoticed by any user group. And if the prediction of 3.6 million is a little high, restrictions may impact commercial and noncommercial users alike.
But other user groups might not awaken to the bleak sockeye outlook until they have already geared up to fish.
“It will probably be halfway through the season before other users notice that it’s not going to be a good season,” said Jeff Fox, a Fish and Game management biologist. “Commercial fishermen have known for years that this will be a squeaky year.”
Although not everyone has begun sweating over the low projection, McCombs said he predicts all sockeye fishery users will be howling when so few fish appear.
“People have a lot of expectations, and a lot of people are going to be unhappy,” he said. “You could be in a suburb in Seattle and you’ll hear the screaming when those fish don’t show up.”
In the upper Cook Inlet, Sockeye will likely be the weakest in Susitna River, where only 190,000 fish are expected, only 10,000 more than the lower end of the river’s escapement goal.
“That is our biggest concern,” Fox said. “There are very few extra fish there.”
But weak runs also are projected to hit the largest-producing system in the inlet, the Kenai River, where only 1.8 million sockeye are expected.
“We’re going to be pretty stingy on fishing times in any area where those fish will be present,” Fox said, referring to the commercial fishery.
If things get bad enough, however, other fisheries such as the personal-use fishery, also could face restrictions.
“If the projection is that we are below the escapement and their harvest would keep us there, we would restrict them,” Fox said.
Restrictions on noncommercial fisheries could include reduced bag limits, restrictions on time of day or area, or closure.
The sockeye fishery woes, however, will not be evenly distributed from one region to the next. While the Kenai and Susitna rivers are projected to see few sockeye, for example, the Kasilof run is expected to be near normal with a projected run of 937,000 fish, just slightly below the 20-year average of 957,000 fish.
This disparity will not go unnoticed among commercial fishermen.
Those north of the regulatory line halfway between the Kenai and Kasilof, for example, likely will be hit hard by low sockeye numbers, while fisherman south of the line may still catch good returns.
Unless the projections are wildly inaccurate, some of the upper Cook Inlet fishermen are all but assured a bad year.
“Even if they’re not restricted, there’s not a lot of fish to catch,” Fox said. “They’re pretty much doom and gloom already.”
For the noncommercial fisheries, few things will be certain until the runs are in. And even small inaccuracies in the projections could mean the difference between looser and tighter restrictions.
“Anything is possible by July,” Fox said. “We kind of need to wait until July for things to firm up ... . Forecasts are rarely accurate.”
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