Voices of the Peninsula: What's happened to our kings?

Posted: Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Most anglers on the Kenai are very concerned about the health of our Kenai River King salmon fishery. Most agree that there are fewer fish returning and the fish are smaller than ever before. Scientists tell us that the low numbers of King salmon are a widespread phenomena occurring throughout most of Alaska and probably caused by rearing conditions in our oceans, but the size of the fish is probably an in-river issue that has allot to do with selective harvest of larger fish over time.

Up until about 7 or 8 years ago most of us felt that if we didn't come home with at least one 50 - 60 pounder in the boat it was a bad day on the water. Nowadays, these fish make front-page headlines in the local paper. The large "world famous" Kenai King was much sought after for wall mounts, photo-ops, and general bragging rights among anglers. And folks, therein lies the problem. We have been extremely effective harvesters of these bigger fish. Through years of selective harvest we have changed the ratio of returning age classed fish and thus suffered a reduction in the overall quality of this great fishery.

We must remember that this fishery is only about 30 years in the making and the cause and effect of our zeal to harvest big Kenai Kings makes it incumbent on ourselves to try to fix what we have damaged. We have a large in-river commercial guiding component and an equal amount of private anglers vying for these fish. It is not hard to understand how the harvest potential could be damaging to these stocks.

On an average day in the last two weeks of July we probably have well over 500 boats on the river throughout the day. With an average of four fishermen per boat that means that there are roughly 2,000 rods per day trying to catch a Kenai King. The second run creel survey data tells us that the average guide harvest this season was about 1 fish per trip and most likely that fish was less than 25 pounds. I would think it would become more and more difficult to entice return clients to the Kenai unless we can recover this fishery.

Is it to late to rectify this situation? Perhaps not, but it's going to take sacrifices by all user groups and a commitment by the responsible State and Federal agencies to admit there is a problem and address these issues. I believe, with the current concern in the angling community, the time is right to come together for this common cause.

Can we continue applying this type of pressure to the resource and still further our cause for recovery of these stocks? Perhaps, if we change the manner in which we prosecute the fishery itself. Additionally, Fish and Game is going to have to improve the way they enumerate these stocks so that we can have more confidence in the data as the season progresses. This year the late run sonar count was around 45,000, but after the season ended and the department considered the low test net figures combined with the low harvests in both the commercial and sport fisheries they adjusted that figure to around 28,000. Quite a disparity, and this figure is only a rough estimate. Nobody really knows for sure exactly how many fish actually entered the river or made it to the spawning grounds.

I would like to offer the following suggestions as a starting point for discussion on ways to help this valued resource start to recover:

* Set up alternating spawning conservation zones on the river to provide undisturbed spawning areas. I would set up four conservation zones. Zone 1 - the mouth to Rm19 Slikok Cr. would be open to fishing annually. Zone 2 - RM19 Slikok Cr. to Rm30 Funny R., Zone 3 - Rm30 Funny R. to RM40 Bing's Landing and Zone 4 - Rm40 Bing's Landing to Rm50 Skilak Lk.. Zones 2, 3 and 4 would be closed to fishing for King salmon in alternating years to provide undisturbed spawning protection. Additionally, all other existing closed areas would remain in effect.

* Insist that State and Federal agencies responsible for managing this resource develop and employ the most accurate field equipment to enumerate these stocks in both the mainstem and tributary waters. Accurate in-season information is a vital part of insuring adequate escapement objectives.

* Return the slot limit to the pre 2008 measurements of 44in. -55in. and leave the slot limit in effect throughout the King season above the Soldotna Bridge. Most of the larger fish are females and this measure would help insure that these larger fish have a greater opportunity to spawn.

* Apply the slot limit regulation to the PU fishery. All in-river user groups should share in this burden of recovery.

* Add a second drift boat day per week that would be open to both guided and unguided anglers. This would allow another day of the week where fish could move more freely up-river without outboard disturbance and turbid conditions associated with heavy powerboat use.

As Kenai area residents we share in the pride of our famous river known mostly for its large King salmon. If we fail to act soon we may further sacrifice the uniqueness of this great resource. We cannot rely on our agencies to do it for us. Their current mandates seem to be more about providing access and opportunity, and less about maintaining the quality of our fisheries. It is incumbent on us as anglers and conservationists to do so for the resource and future generations to enjoy in the same manner we have been afforded.

Dwight Kramer is a Kenai area resident and a concerned private angler.

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