Better numbers lead to better management

Posted: Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game last week announced changes in its methodology for estimating salmon escapement on the Kenai River.

This is good news -- we hope. Indeed, the issue can be a little difficult to wrap one's head around.

Several years ago, when Fish and Game upgraded the sonar used to estimate the number of fish in the river, the agency discovered that the old system undercounted salmon by as much as 40 percent. The new system, according to biologists, does not show a bias high or low.

In making commercial fishery management decisions, managers had been adjusting the sonar estimate to reflect the old system's numbers, upon which escapement goals had been based. The trouble was, commercial managers didn't take into account the portion of the sockeye run allocated to sport fishermen, the end result being that it takes longer for run estimates to meet escapement goals. With those fish taken out of the river, the formula used to determine escapement also should have changed. Fish and Game estimates the difference to have been some 60,000 fish.

This season, Fish and Game will factor out the sport fishing's share of the run before adjusting the sonar estimate.

To say Cook Inlet fish allocation and management issues are complex is an understatement. Fishery managers rely on the best information they can collect, whether it be test nets in the inlet or sonar counts in the river. As commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox said at a meeting last week, a system that counts every fish in the river just doesn't exist.

Generally speaking, fishery managers do a good job making decisions with the available data, but overlooking a significant portion of the run does give us reason for pause. In tough economic times, an extra opening or an emergency closure can make or break a fisherman. We're glad that Fish and Game has implemented a better formula for this season, and we hope the agency continues to use the best science and counting techniques available when making management decisions. Fishing remains a crucial part of the Kenai Peninsula economy, and livelihoods depend of effective fishery management.

In short: With the health of the Kenai River salmon fishery so vital to our community, we hope changes in the formula for estimating fish lead to the best possible management decisions.

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