Due to a strong return of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has issued two emergency fishing orders designed to increase both the personal use and sport sockeye harvest.
The first emergency order ups the daily bag and possession limit for salmon caught in the Kenai from three to six. Only two of those may be coho salmon, and only one may be a king salmon. The seasonal limit of two Kenai king salmon remains in place. Apart from the six salmon limit for combinations of king, coho and sockeye salmon, an additional six pink salmon may be retained each day from the Kenai River.
The second order changes the hours for personal use fishing on the Kenai from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. to a 24-hour fishery for the remainder of the season, which ends July 31.
The orders were issued late Thursday evening and went into effect immediately. Both seek to curb what biologists say is an above average return of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River.
As of Tuesday, 622,335 red salmon had escaped into the river. The department estimates that this year's return will exceed 2 million fish, according Mark Gamblin, area management biologist with the department.
"It's going to be well above 2 million fish," Gamblin said. "I'd say slightly under or over three million."
Some of those fish need to be prevented from reaching their spawning grounds. Gamblin said the measures were needed to ensure the river's return remains within the department's escapement goal.
"We're now looking at an in-river goal of 750,000 to 900,000 fish. We're confident we're going to have at least 750,000 returning to the river," Gamblin said.
He said he doesn't expect to see any further regulatory changes to the sport or personal use fisheries this season. The department is confident it will reach an escapement within the target goal.
"We're not expecting to see a problem," he said.
"The liberalization of hours for dipnetting and increasing the bag limit is as much as we've done in the past. We don't see the need to do anything more."
Fishers were taking full advantage of the strong sockeye return Wednesday, although not all were aware of the new rules.
Ryan Campbell traveled from Puyallup, Wash., to fish the Kenai. He said he was unaware of the regulation changes, although it didn't appear his experience would be much affected. In over two hours of fishing at Soldotna's Swiftwater Park, Campbell had yet to land a salmon.
"It's crazy, those people have caught so many fish," Campbell said, pointing at a group of anglers with a full stringer just a few yards away.
Why couldn't Campbell manage to hook any sockeye?
"That's what I'm trying to figure out," he sighed.
Other anglers were more aware of the regulation change, and successful. Anchorage resident David Hammermeister said he heard about the bag limit change, loaded his son into the car and headed toward the peninsula.
"That's one of the reasons we came down," he said, pausing to hook -- then lose -- a leaping sockeye salmon. "That, and dipnetting is open 24 hours. We got nine in an hour last night."
It may take Campbell every one of those hours to get his limit of six sockeye. However, he said, just being in Alaska is enough of a thrill for him.
"This is my first time up here. When I was a kid, I always went to the sportsmen's show with my dad. I always wanted to see Alaska, but I was never big enough to (visit Alaska).
" My dad said when I graduated from high school, he'd take me. I just graduated, so I'm here," he said.
So are the sockeye. Fishing is expected to remain strong through the next week, with daily Fish and Game sonar counts of sockeye entering the river exceeding 20,000 fish daily.
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