The Kenai River finally made its escapement of sockeye salmon over the weekend, though it took a closure of sportfishing and setnetting and restrictions on driftnetters to achieve.
On Sunday, 8,800 late-run sockeye crossed the counter in the Kenai River, bringing the season escapement total to 602,000. Monday, 9,200 more were added for a season count of 611,000. For sockeye runs less than 2 million in strength, the escapement range is 600,000 to 850,000.
"We'll count for a few more days yet," said Pat Shields, assistant area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna. "It looks like we'll end up pretty close to last year's escapement of 625,000."
The difference between last season and this, he said, is fishers caught 500,000 more sockeye this year. However, a price 20 cents per pound lower will put commercial fishers in the same boat they were in after last year's dismal season.
Given a harvest in 2000 of 1.3 million sockeye, at an average weight of 6 pounds each and a price of 85 cents per pound, commercial fishers grossed an estimated $6,630,000. This year's harvest of 1.8 million, at 65 cents per pound, will yield $7,020,000.
"That's not much better than last year, and last year was considered an economic disaster," Shields said. "It's tough for folks in the commercial fishing industry. Three of the last four years have been dismal economically."
If last year's price had held this year, Cook Inlet fishers would have grossed $9,180,000.
The return to the Kasilof River went well past the upper end of the escapement goal, even though setnetters near the mouth of the river had additional fishing time. The top end of the ideal escapement range is 250,000 sockeye, though 308,000 have shown up.
Another river that has been unexpectedly productive this year is the Crescent, on the inlet's west side. Fishers were given ample fishing time, but the escapement ended up at 78,000, far exceeding the optimum escapement range of 25,000 to 50,000.
The Yentna River is another story. The farthest north fishery in Cook Inlet has an escapement range of 100,000 to 150,000, but only 85,000 have shown up.
"And that's with two closed regular fishing periods, pulling fishermen out of the middle in the central district, and they had two openings where catchability was way down due to the wind," Shields said. "That particular system is a pretty hard one to manage."
Driftnetters have one more day -- Thursday -- in the central district. But if they fish, they will most likely be restricted to the west side again. The west side is described by a line running from Shell Platform C through the Kalgin Island buoy to a point west of Anchor Point. Chinitna Bay is closed, however.
Preliminary reports from Monday's drift opening indicate about 50 boats out of a fleet of more than 300 participated, with each catching about 108 coho, five sockeye and 28 chum salmon per boat.
The season is over for east side setnetters. By regulation, their season ended Tuesday, but they have been out of the water for more than a week, and Monday would have been their last period.
"It seems like no matter how many fish you catch, with prices as low as they are you don't get anywhere. I look at my paycheck and I can't believe I worked as hard as I did," Kasilof setnetter Paul Shadura said. "I can't look at this as being a successful season. It's very unfortunate for many fishermen. The price exasperates us to no end."
However, Shadura said he was fortunate, since he fished close to the mouth of the Kasilof and did better than last year.
"A lot of set and drift fishermen didn't make ends meet, and that has a lot to do with the price and the regulatory management of the fishery," he said.
Shadura is vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association. He said KPFA has some items in the Alaska Board of Fisheries proposal book, which will be addressed at the Feb. 6 through 19 meeting in Anchorage.
Shadura said he shares the belief that overescapement in the past in the Kenai River is responsible for the low return this year.
"KPFA has put in some proposals to reduce overescapement amounts in-river and to correct some language inadequacies in the regulations," Shadura said.
"Everything is on the table at these Board of Fish meetings. I imagine it will be a heated discussion and debate."
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