Cook Inlet drift boats and east side setnetters will be on the beach today to shore up flagging sockeye salmon escapement to the Kenai River.
"The crew is on the beach mending nets and tying things up to bring them off the beach for the end of the season," said Clam Gulch setnetter Howard Davis on Wednesday. "We pulled stuff off the beach yesterday, and they'll probably pull a lot off the beach today."
Today's closure could put a seal on what has been the worst season in memory for many upper inlet fishers.
"I've only been in it since 1983, but it's by far my worst season," Davis said, adding that there is no way he will make expenses this year. "It costs a h--l of a lot more than I've made so far. I've got three guys that have worked their butts off that aren't going to make a h--l of a lot of money. They'd have been better off working at the cannery."
He said fishing has been so poor that today's closure makes no difference.
"The last two periods I fished, I caught a total of 233 fish with 15 nets," he said. "I just talked to someone the other day that went dipnetting and caught 58. That's a h--l of a lot better average than I've got."
Kalifornsky Beach driftnet skipper Erik Lindow said there are only three regular driftnet openings left this season -- July 31, Aug. 3 and Aug. 7.
"But normally, there isn't much out there after Aug. 1," he said.
The Department of Fish and Game could announce additional openings in a narrow corridor near the inlet's east shore, but drift boats usually find few sockeyes there after Aug. 1.
"It doesn't look real good for making any money out of this season," he said.
He expects soon to resume his off-season job as a plumber.
Lindow said he probably will make his fishing expenses, since he made money fishing halibut, and his salmon boat and permit are paid off. However, fishers still paying off boats and permits may have trouble.
"I have a friend over here, and it doesn't look like he's going to make his payment," Lindow said.
James Brady, regional supervisor for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Anchorage, said he expects to meet the Kenai River sockeye escapement goal, but whether drift skippers and east side setnetters will see more openings depends on how strong the tail of the run comes in.
Right now, Davis said, that does not look good, since yesterday's test fishery at the lower end of the district was a bust.
Jeff Fox, area management biologist for the Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna, said there may be additional openings within a half mile of shore in the Kasilof section since Kasilof River escapement has been strong.
Roughly 24,000 sockeyes passed the Kenai River sonar counter Tuesday, bringing the total escapement to 470,000.
"We'll wait for the Kenai to get back within the goal and get back to regular periods," he said.
State biologists 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.
Given slow escapement to the Kenai, Monday's drift gillnet opening was canceled, as was most set gillnetting on the inlet's eastern shore. Through Monday, upper inlet commercial fishers had landed just 1.3 million sockeyes. Monday's catch was just 20,000.
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 goal is to manage commercial fishing to put 750,000 to 950,000 fish past the sonar counter in the lower river. This year, biologists expected to operate within that range.
However, if the projected Kenai River return is less than 2 million sockeyes, the escapement goal drops to 600,000 to 850,000 fish.
"We've downgraded the Kenai run to less than 2 million based on the offshore test fishery and the (portion of) the commercial catch allocated to the Kenai River," Brady said. "Today, we revised the escapement goal to 600,000 to 850,000 fish."
Brady said he wishes there were more fish this year.
"It would have been a good year to have a big Kenai run," he said.
The Kenai produces the majority of upper inlet sockeyes, but harvesting the bounty requires a balancing act. Biologists often restrict central inlet fishers to conserve cohos or put more sockeyes in northern inlet streams. However, enough sockeyes already have entered most Cook Inlet streams, Brady said, and the coho run appears strong.
"None of the things that complicate our ability to harvest a big Kenai River run are a problem," he said. "There just weren't many Kenai River fish."
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