Dwindling sockeye salmon escapement numbers in the Kenai River over the past few days forced the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close some commercial fisheries Monday, leaving Thursday's fishing prospect uncertain.
After Fish and Game made an in-season assessment Friday and tallied total escapement for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers Sunday, it decided to close all commercial fisheries that harvest Kenai reds.
"Our sockeye salmon run will likely be less than our preseason projection for the Kenai River," said Pat Shields, Fish and Game assistant manager of Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries.
The department's preseason projection of 2.4 million returning reds is expected to be on the high side, as a run of less than 2 million is predicted, according to the in-season assessment.
Because of the run size, Fish and Game reduced its in-river goal for the Kenai to 650,000 to 850,000, down from the original goal of 750,000 to 900,000.
Through Sunday, 455,000 sockeye passed the sonar site at Mile 19 in the Kenai.
"We're estimating that the run will be at least two days early," Shields said.
On average, the mid-point of the run for Cook Inlet is July 15; however, this year data suggests half of the run was in by July 13.
An early run typically means more escapements occurs earlier, leaving weaker tail ends to the season.
"With the projection of an early run, we need to be much closer to our minimum in-river goal to allow commercial fishing than if it was on time or late," Shields said. "The commercial fishing period on Thursday is very much in question."
Unless the situation takes a drastic change, it's likely Thursday also will be closed to commercial fishing.
"This is a day-to-day call, and we will wait until Wednesday to make that call," Shields said. "Escapements would have to increase significantly in the Kenai to make us feel comfortable enough to fish on Thursday."
Over the past 10 years, the average passage of sockeye through July 26 is 612,000 for the Kenai.
On the Kasilof River, Fish and Game is hoping to buck the trend over the last decade of exceeding its optimum escapement goal -- and it's close to doing so.
As of Sunday, the escapement total was 225,000 sockeye for the Kasilof, remaining within the OEG of 150,000 to 300,000.
Because the Kasilof is an earlier run than the Kenai in its timing, it's still possible Fish and Game will reach its goal for the season.
"At this point, we have a pretty good chance of staying within the OEG," Shields said.
In order to slow the rate of escapement of sockeye in the Kasilof, over the past couple of weeks, setnetters have been permitted to fish one-half mile off of the beach south of the Blanchard line to the Ninilchik River.
On average over the last 10 years, 80 percent of the run is complete by July 26. The average escapement for the same date is 270,000.
"Most of those years we exceeded the goal in the Kasilof," Shields said.
Personal-use dipnet fisheries on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers remain open. Kenai's dipnet fishery closes Friday, while Kasilof's closes Aug. 7.
Mike Nesper can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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