Hopefully your freezer has enough sockeye salmon in it already. The Kenai River dipnet season closed as of 12:01 a.m. today, and effective at 12:01 a.m. Thursday, sport fishing for reds on most of the river is over for the year.
In an emergency order issued Tuesday by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna, the Kenai River drainage will be closed to sport fishing -- including catch and release -- for sockeye salmon. The king salmon season also is over as of last night, and any caught now must be released.
The only exception is the Russian River and the area of its confluence with the Kenai downstream to the power line, approximately 1,800 yards, which is open to sockeye fly fishing only. Any angler lucky enough to actually reel in a king on fly gear must release it.
"With test nets giving us declining catches and sonar counts declining at the same time, all indications are that sockeye are declining in the inlet and we're getting close to the end of the run," said Mark Gamblin, area management biologist for the Sport Fish Division in Soldotna.
With the red salmon run trailing off, the department is no longer confident the Kenai River will meet the lower end of its optimum escapement goal of 500,000 spawners.
"We're below our escapement goal for replenishment and don't feel comfortable harvesting the fish this late in the run," Gamblin said.
On Saturday, 18,668 reds passed the Kenai River counter; Sunday, 15,325; Monday, 17,691; and by noon Tuesday, about 6,000, for a running season total of about 531,000 reds. But about 100,000 of those have been taken by sport fishers, leaving the department a little less than 70,000 reds short of the bottom end of the 500,000 number.
The return of reds to the Kenai this year was predicted to be at least 2.5 million, though to date only 1.5 million have shown up. Commercial fishers harvested about 900,000, according to the department, with dipnetters and sport fishers taking about 100,000 apiece.
Without reductions in sport harvest, it is unlikely the minimum optimum escapement goal will be reached by the end of the season, Gamblin said.
The weak end of the run also has affected commercial fishers. Setnetters are out of the water on the east side and driftnetters have been restricted to the west side of a line between Shell Platform C and the Kalgin buoy on a line with Anchor Point.
Commercial fish biologist Pat Shields said the same set-up is likely for Thursday's opening.
Kasilof setnetters below the Blanchard Line had several extra openings and extensions this summer since the Kasilof River sockeye return has been above expectations and above the upper limit of the optimum escapement goal. In recent weeks, those setnetters have been restricted to within a half-mile of shore in an effort to allow more Kenai-bound sockeye to pass.
"We find ourselves needing all the Kenai sockeye we can get, so at this time, we'll take whatever escapement in the Kasilof we have to, to get that Kenai goal," Shields said.
"It wasn't until late in the month that we could say (Kenai River sockeye) were not here in the numbers we expected."
He said setnetters will stay out of the water on the east side until the Kenai River has passed 600,000 reds, or 500,000 more than what is sport-caught.
The driftnet season ends by regulation on Aug. 9, which could give drift fishers three more openings.
Meanwhile, the king salmon sport season will wrap up with an escapement of 18,200, which is about 400 more than the lower end of the optimum escapement range.
"It was a modest return of kings to the Kenai River, but the catch rate was high," Gamblin said. "In terms of angler success and satisfaction, it was an extremely good year."
The last chance to put sockeye in the freezer is in the Kasilof River dipnet fishery, which is open until midnight on Sunday.
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