Future histories of Cook Inlet fishing and the Kenai River may well record 2006 as the worst on record for sockeye salmon returns, and the effects are expected to ripple through the Kenai Peninsula economy.
Only 1.8 million sockeye salmon are predicted to return to the Kenai River this summer, and the Susitna River may see as few as 190,000, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The department, which officially termed this summer’s returns “relatively small” for the Kenai and “very poor” for the Susitna, said several factors probably contributed to the small returns, among them the effects of two years 1999 and 2000 that saw fry numbers hit 20 million. That produced big returns in 2004 and 2005, but likely had detrimental impacts on subsequent brood years.
“We have seen a pattern in the Kenai River of one big one sometimes impacting a second,” said Jeff Fox, the Upper Cook Inlet area management biologist. “Two (big fry years) are pretty much always followed by a bad return” when those fry come back to spawn.
Fox called this year’s much weaker run “the perfect storm,” though he expressed some hope for a very late surge that will help meet escapement goals and at least put an end to the emergency closures.
He said he did not expect any late surge to turn this year’s run into a great one, however.
“It’s the nature of the beast so far this is shaping up as the worst season ever for many user groups,” he said.
In a normal year, a million sockeye might be harvested from the Blanchard line between the Kasilof and Kenai rivers to Boulder Point above the Nikiski Dock, which is just a portion of the Upper Cook Inlet area. So far this summer, the catch there is 40,000, Fox said. Recent data is showing a lot of fish near Humpy Point likely headed for the Kasilof River. The return to the Kenai River, however, has been miserable.
Above Boulder Point in the Northern District, only about 4,000 sockeye have been caught, where in recent years harvests have averaged between 15,000 and 50,000, Fox said.
“Something is happening in the Northern District,” he said.
Among the factors that might be affecting fish numbers are warm and low water levels, beavers and competition from other species, such as pike, in the 28 lakes in the district, he said.
In response, the department closed Monday’s regularly scheduled commercial gillnet harvest in all areas of the Central District of Upper Cook Inlet, except in the Kasilof River Special Harvest Area.
Setnet fishing also was closed in all areas of the Northern District and in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands sections of the Upper Subdistrict of the Upper Cook Inlet, except in the Kasilof Special Harvest Area.
In a further effort to reduce catch levels, the department also restricted sportfishing today, July 25. Beginning at midnight Monday, anglers were prohibited from keeping or possessing sockeye salmon in the Kenai River drainage, except for the Russian River-Kenai River fly-fishing-only area.
In a July 20 press release, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, which represents 200 inlet commercial driftnetters, laid blame for the poor return at the feet of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the Division of Sport Fish and special interests, calling the run failure “the direct result of regulatory changes by the Board of Fisheries, management plan changes requested by the Sport Fish Division, and special interest groups here on the Kenai River.”
Steve Tvenstrup, president of UCIDA, said this year’s late-run sockeye return to the Kenai River is an economic disaster. The future doesn’t look much brighter. Tvenstrup predicted the low-return trend would continue for three or four years.
A veteran of the Exxon Valdez oil spill disaster in 1989, Tvenstrup said that at least then there was somebody to blame and the knowledge that there would be compensation.
“This year, there is not one person to blame, there are a lot,” he said. “We need to get back to biological management of the fishery rather than political management.”
The association said the poor showing of sockeye coming to the Kenai River was “foreseeable, predictable and preventable.”
Excessive spawning escapements can lead to a bumper crop of salmon fry eating up all the available food supplies one year, which can cause reduced size and starvation among fry populations in succeeding years, making them more vulnerable to ocean mortality. Tvenstrup said UCIDA officials had been making that point to the Board of Fisheries since the mid-1990s, only to see the Sport Fish Division continue allowing large escapements.
“When politics and special interest groups set aside biological data and trends, run failures are the inevitable outcome,” the association said.
Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor John Williams said Monday he was considering asking Gov. Frank Murkowski for a disaster declaration in light of the economic impact of the poor sockeye figures.
“Looking at how dismal the salmon run has been, and that they are probably not going to make minimum escapement, we are gathering data on the impacts to tourism and from a commercial standpoint, as well,” he said.
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