Reader: Something’s not right with sonar

Posted: Thursday, June 29, 2006

This is a letter to the clients of guides who fished the Kenai River for early run chinook salmon. Some of you are probably wondering how a guide could fail to catch you a legal fish this year with the near record return. You must have thought you hired a poor guide. Fishing conditions were good, so the guide must be the problem. Just maybe there is a second explanation.

The chinook salmon counts are from a sonar project located in the lower river. The project was started in the mid-1980s and has had problems ever since. First, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicated they could separate chinook from sockeye salmon on the basis of how large of signal was returned from a fish. However, a number of us who know the field questioned this, and we were eventually proven right. Sockeye and chinook salmon signal strengths overlap significantly.

Second, ADF&G assumes sockeye migrate near shore and chinook offshore so they could count the offshore targets as chinook. However, anyone who has been in the tidally influenced lower river knows this is incorrect. A gillnetting program confirmed that both species were mixed together.

Today, we see near record chinook counts but other indices of abundance are not indicating a near-record run. You clients sitting in those guide boats are just doing average — about 16 hours to catch a chinook. Test netting in the lower river is not tracking the sonar counts and indicating a much weaker run.

ADF&G just admitted this in their weekly report. Not a strong comment, but something like sockeye may be influencing the counts. You think? Early Russian River sockeye salmon are entering the river in large numbers this year.

Why would ADF&G deceive the public? One answer is ADF&G wants to provide opportunity for anglers and thus increase angler participation (funds for Sport Fish Division come from license sales). Raising expectations and allowing the use of bait early in the season provides opportunity and induces participation. People hang on ADF&G press releases as gospel.

Second, ADF&G is an active participant in the allocation battle. If the sonar counter does not function for the early run then the same can be said for the late run. By admitting they are flawed, Sport Fish Division loses the ability to influence commercial fishery management.

Therefore, clients that had high expectations from the press releases and management actions this season were used and the guide industry was made the scapegoat.

In conclusion, the guide industry and general public should be upset with ADF&G. The public should be calling for an independent investigation of the sonar operation. ADF&G has demonstrated they are unable to be truthful.

Further, high counts can lead to the classic situation of overharvest of a resource. When managers think they have more fish than are there, those phantom fish are thought to spawn when we all know ghost fish do not reproduce.

Kenneth E. Tarbox


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