First, the good news. Anglers will be able to fish for king salmon on the Kenai River beginning July 1. However, there's a catch.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced Friday that, until July 15, fishing for kings will be prohibited in the Kenai upstream from the Soldotna bridge to Skilak Lake. The measure was enacted to protect the early run of kings, which biologists say is the weakest on record.
"It's a certainty this is going to be a record low return for the early run," said Mark Gamblin, Fish and Game area biologist.
As of June 20, only 4,646 kings had been counted by the department's sonar counter. The minimum escapement goal for the early run is 7,200 fish. Gamblin said that even though the Kenai has been under restrictions or closures for most of the season, he still does not think the minimum goal will be met.
"It's safe to say we'll be lucky if we meet our escapement," Gamblin said.
Fishing below the bridge will be managed under 2002 sportfishing regulations. Those regulations state that only single-hook, artificial lures may be used, bait is allowed and anglers may take one king salmon per day, two per year, from the Kenai. Anyone fishing upstream from the bridge is restricted to using one unbaited single-hook artificial lure. This will allow anglers to continue to fish in areas closed to king fishing, but only for species other than kings.
What impact the low king return will have on future runs is unclear. However, Gamblin did note that the run is not in danger of dying out.
"We're still in the natural range of variability for this run," Gamblin said.
Gamblin added that, historically, some of the largest runs have been produced by small numbers of spawning salmon, although it would be nice if the run approached the 7,200 goal.
"What we're trying to do is come as close to our minimum spawning escapement as we can," he said.
Area fishing interests say they support the regulations to protect the early run.
"I have no problem with the restrictions. Every restriction they've had, we've supported," said Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
Huber said his organization supports the conservation measures, although he's worried about local business owners who are feeling the effects of having diminished king fishing on the Kenai.
"I'm hearing from lots and lots of business owners. Everybody's hurting. It's not just the guides, it's everybody. This is a multimillion-dollar fishery that just isn't happening," Huber said.
What is happening is people are flocking to fishing holes in other locations, according to guide Don Johnson of Johnson Brothers Guides and Outfitters in Soldotna.
"People have just sorta headed north or south, either to the Russian (River) or Homer," Johnson said.
Johnson said he's hoping a strong second run of kings will boost what has been a dismal summer for the tourism industry.
"The chances are 100 percent," that business will pick up in July, he said. "As long as they don't hold up the river below the bridge."
Gamblin said there's no way of knowing how strong the late run will be. "There's not a good enough link between the two runs," to predict the strength of the late run based on early run numbers.
He said the department will manage the late run the same as in any other year. No new regulation changes are planned, he said. However, the department will be closely watching the returns to see if further restrictions are warranted.
"It's a wait and see deal," he said.
Some anglers are concerned about the fact that king fishing has become so unpredictable.
Joe Connors, president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association said he generally fishes above the Soldotna bridge. He said he's concerned that it's getting harder and harder for people to find uncrowded fishing opportunities.
"I had a party cancel that's come here for five years -- they only want to fish the upper river," Connors said. He said the Kenai upstream from the Soldotna bridge is usually less crowded than below, making it an attractive opportunity for anglers who want to avoid the crowds.
He said he's not opposed to trying to protect the early run. He just wants to see a fishery that is stable and predictable so clients will know beforehand that they'll have an opportunity to fish.
"I'm not arguing against the regulations. We need them in place if we don't have fish," Connors said.
"You just don't know from one year to the other. It's the uncertainty," he said. "What's happening is there aren't many opportunities left."
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