Casey Hanebuth processes red salmon last July at Kenai River Seafoods in Kenai. The forecast for next year's harvest is close to the 20-year average.
Photo by M. Scott Moon
Biologists for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are predicting a reasonably good year for commercial fishermen and anglers fishing for sockeye salmon next year. The harvest should only be 200,000 fish below the 20-year average in four of the major Cook Inlet rivers including the Kenai while the sockeye salmon forecast for the Kasilof River is higher than the average.
"The harvest should be close to the 20-year average," said Mark Willette, Soldotna Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist. "(The season) shouldn't be very poor, it's near average."
According to the Upper Cook Inlet Forecast of the 2008 Sockeye Salmon Run, 5.6 million sockeye salmon are projected to return to the Upper Cook Inlet area next year. Biologists are projecting a harvest of 3.9 million sockeye salmon for all user groups, which is 200,000 fish below the 20-year average. Approximately 3.1 million fish are expected to return to the Kenai River, which is 16 percent less than the 20-year average, while the Kasilof River will see 1.3 million fish return to its waters, a 33 percent increase from the 20-year average.
Willette said biologists use several different models based upon spawning abundance, sibling abundance, fall fry abundance and smelt abundance for each year. Returning sockeye salmon are often four, five or six years old with the youngest age group making up 95 to 98 percent of the salmon run. The four-year-old fish tend to be smaller than the other fish, but Willette said that doesn't affect the price buyers pay to obtain them.
"The numbers of fish caught by both the commercial and the sport fishery are affected by the abundance of the fish," Willette said. "If we have a strong run, both groups are likely to have more fish available to catch. I can't really say it's going to benefit one group over the other."
Willette said the forecast would have an effect primarily on management of the sockeye salmon fishery in the Kenai River. The escapement goal for the river is based on a sliding scale, and with a forecast of 3 million fish, the in-river goal for the Kenai River is going to be between 750,000 and 950,000 sockeye salmon.
Harvest forecasts for the Susitna River, at 344,000, is 24 percent less than the 20-year average of 453,000.
With a higher than average forecast of 1.3 million fish, Willette projects a higher number of users on the Kasilof next year. The forecast for the Kasilof River was based upon sibling models, but biologists looked at smelt abundance models as well.
"We had a near-record high abundance of (smelts)," Willette said. "We had 10 million (smelts) coming out of the Kasilof River. That was a very strong (smelt) migration and the sibling model backed it up."
Because of the higher than average projected run for the Kasilof River, Willette said Fish and Game may open the fishery early. On rivers with a weaker projected run such as the Susitna, with only 344,000 sockeye salmon, Willette said Fish and Game may be more conservative with its management, but that decision will be affected by the upcoming Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage.
A forecasted run and an actual run are two different things, however. Willette said there's no way biologists can accurately determine what a run would be like any given year because there's no way of knowing what's happening in the ocean. Willette said the margin of error is 39 percent between the forecast and the actual run.
Some years forecasted runs are below the actual run, some years they're above. Willette said last year's forecast was pretty close to the actual run. Biologists had forecasted an overall run of 4.9 million sockeye salmon and 5.27 million swam up Upper Cook Inlet rivers.
"There's no way to know whether it will be any better or worse than the average," Willette said. "Hopefully it will be better, we'll just have to wait and see."
Jessica Cejnar can be reached at email@example.com
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