Tell Wohltmann of Anchorage waits on the beach for a fish to clean while dipnetting with family at the mouth of the Kenai River on Wednesday afternoon. Commercial, personal-use and sport fishermen are all going to be beached as a result of a slow return of red salmon.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Kenai River personal-use and commercial fisheries are being closed and sportfishing restricted, due to a weaker than expected return of sockeye.
The personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River will close at 11 p.m. Friday, and sport fishermen will be limited to one fish per day starting at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game emergency orders.
In addition, emergency orders also have imposed closures on commercial drift and setnet fisheries, and on the Kenaitze Indian Tribe educational fishery.
Driftnets in all areas of the Upper Cook Inlet are prohibited from fishing from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today, except in the Kasilof Special Harvest Area, which opened at midnight Wednesday and will remain open until 7 p.m. today.
Setnet fishing will be closed in all areas of the northern district of Upper Cook Inlet from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. today.
While the commercial fishery has been hit with closures due to weak sockeye numbers many times before, the closures and restrictions in other fisheries are not unheard of.
“We’ve been here before,” said George Pappas, area management biologist for Fish and Game. “It has happened.”
Dipnetters return to their vehicles Wednesday. Most reported slow to moderate fishing conditions.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
The last time the personal-use fishery was closed was in 1998 and the last time the sport fishery was closed or restricted was in 2001.
The number of fish that have entered into the river so far are even lower than the grim projections forecast at the beginning of the season and raise serious concerns, Fish and Game resource managers say.
“So your question is how serious?” Pappas said. “It’s serious enough that we don’t feel we’re going to hit the goals.”
The emergency orders follow on the heals of already tight restrictions imposed on the commercial fishing fleet.
“They’ve restricted their commercial fleets significantly, about as much as they can,” Pappas said. “And so we have restricted in river as much as we can.”
Up until Tuesday, the Kenai River sonar station had counted a total of 82,369 sockeye toward an inriver goal of 650,000 to 850,000 fish.
And according to Fish and Game’s offshore test fishery, there are an estimated 200,000 to 400,000 sockeye in the inlet, approximately 70 percent of which are likely to be Kenai sockeye salmon.
“That fishery is telling us that there are not a lot of fish out there,” said Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for Fish and Game. “We need to get the lion’s share of those fish into the river.”
Thus far, emergency orders imposing restrictions and closures on the commercial fishery apply only to this week and are slated for re-evaluation by Sunday.
Closures and restrictions imposed on other Kenai River sockeye fisheries also will be re-evaluated as sockeye continue to enter the river.
“As soon as we are comfortable with the escapement levels in the Kenai, all of the fisheries will reopen,” Shields said. “But we need to get that escapement level up to a point where we’re comfortable.”
Although there is no magic number that would trigger fishery reopenings, Shields estimated that more than 200,000 would need to enter the river before Monday for any reopening to be considered for next week.
However, he said he is reluctant to offer a number because other factors also can determine when the fisheries can be opened.
If, for example, there are a lot of fish right near the mouth of river, Fish and Game might open fisheries, knowing that those fish are going to come in but haven’t been counted yet, he said.
“That’s kind of the art of management,” he said.
Although Fish and Game regularly opens and closes commercial fisheries, it is reluctant to close or restrict personal-use and sport fisheries.
“You have lodges and guides that have made bookings,” Shields said. “So they really want to make sure that it’s warranted before they close the fishery because it affects a lot of folks.”
Shields said restrictions and closures to protect Kenai River sockeye runs are hitting driftnet fishermen the hardest.
This year has been the worst year for Cook Inlet driftnet fishermen since the 1970s, he said.
So far this year, driftnet fishermen have caught a total of 200,000 sockeye, a number that starkly contrasts with the 1.1 million sockeye drifters caught by this time last year.
“It’s a disaster,” said Steve Tvenstrup, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “There are guys that have been fishing 35 years that haven’t put their boats in the water yet.”
He said he believes too many fish have been allowed to spawn in recent years, straining food sources for salmon fry and harming the fishery. Tvenstrup predicted that the problem will not end anytime soon.
“I think this is a long-term problem,” he said. “We put too many fish into the system and the system crashed.”
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