KENAI -- Dismal returns of Kenai River sockeyes spelled uncertainty for Thursday's commercial fishery in upper Cook Inlet, state biologists said.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries has set a complicated formula for Kenai River spawning escapement goals. If biologists project a total return of 2 million to 4 million Kenai River sockeyes, the escapement goal is 750,000 to 950,000 fish.
''We're watching and waiting on Kenai River escapement,'' said Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna. ''Before we'll fish Thursday, we want to have more fish in the Kenai River.''
If the projected Kenai River return is less than 2 million sockeyes, the escapement goal drops to 600,000 to 850,000 fish.
''We now feel fairly confident that we're not going to make that 2 million return, so we're shooting at the 600,000 to 850,000 goal,'' Shields told the (Kenai) Peninsula Clarion.
Through Monday, though, just 446,000 sockeyes had passed the Kenai River sonar counter. The daily count through noon Tuesday was 6,000 -- similar to the noon count on Monday, when a total of 26,000 sockeyes passed the counter.
Before biologists agree to much of a fishery Thursday, Shields said, they will have to see a fair number of fish pass the counter or see indications that a good number have entered the lower river downstream from the counter.
Fish and Game originally forecast a total upper inlet run of about 4.5 million sockeyes, with a commercial catch of about 3 million. Based on recent commercial landings and the test fishery at the lower end of the district, it now appears the total run will be 3 million to 3.5 million, with a commercial catch of less than 2 million, Shields said.
Jeff Fox, the department's area biologist in Soldotna, said the poor return likely results from heavy rains and severe flooding in fall 1995, when the bulk of this year's run was spawned.
''Remember the poor coho run last year? Cohos primarily return as 4-year fish,'' he said.
In other words, the majority of this year's sockeyes and last year's cohos were spawned in 1995, and both runs turned out to be poor.
Given slow escapement to the Kenai, Monday's drift gillnet opening was canceled, as was most set gillnetting on the inlet's eastern shore. Setnetting was allowed in the northern and western areas of central Cook Inlet. On the inlet's eastern shore, setnetting was allowed only within a half mile of shore between Ninilchik and the Blanchard Line, which lies about halfway between the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.
Through Monday, upper inlet commercial fishers had landed just 1.3 million sockeyes. Monday's catch was just 20,000.
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