King commercial fishery closed in upper Inlet

Mike Campbell

Following on the heels of last week's closure of the Chuitna, Theodore and Lewis rivers to anglers, commercial fish biologists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Tuesday shut commercial king fishing in part of upper Cook Inlet.

Closed is a portion of the northern district from a marker one mile south of the Chuitna to the Susitna River. The four Monday commercial openings affected were due to take place May 31, June 7, June 14 and June 21.

Assistant state area management biologist Pat Shields said an average of 2,500-3,000 kings have been taken recently in the entire northern district -- but he estimated only 200-300 came from the closed area.

"It's not a significant fishery on kings compared with the eastside set-net fishery," he said. The latter ranges from 5,000-20,000 kings.

But it should help anglers.

"If you're not making goal for three straight years, then you better do something about it" said long-time Mat-Su fishing guide Andy Couch in reference to the king runs on the Chuitna, Theodore and Lewis rivers. "What they did was just what's in the management plan.

"But I don't see why it wouldn't put at least a few more fish in the Deshka. Early in the year, any fish we can get is nice because there're not many fish there."

Much of Alaska has suffered poor king salmon returns the past few years, and Cook Inlet has been no exception.

Last year, state biologists closed the Deshka to anglers June 13, the second consecutive year one of Southcentral's major king fisheries was shuttered in June. Before the Deshka season even started last year, anglers were limited to catch-and-release four days a week and commercial fishing was cut back.

But even with those restrictions, the Deshka failed to meet its minimum escapement goal -- though some 4,400 more kings returned than did in 2008.

Weeks later, the Kashwitna River and Willow, Little Willow, Greys, Caswell, Sheep, Montana, Goose, Sunshine, Birch, Trapper and Rabideux creeks were shut, too, in an effort to protect fragile king runs.

Altogether, about 9,000 kings were harvested in upper Cook Inlet last year, according to Fish and Game, well under the long-term average of 16,700.

Escapement of Deshka kings had exceeded the upper end of the range state biologists seek to ensure healthy returns for a decade, from 1997-06, before plummeting.

Now biologists are trying to rebuild the runs.

"I was quite pleased to see that," Bruce Knowles, chairman of the Mat-Su Mayor's Sportsmen's Committee, said of the commercial closure. "It's going to really help."

Reach reporter Mike Campbell at or 257-4329.