With no letup in the dismal return of king salmon to Alaska waters, the state on Tuesday announced maximum restrictions for its premier salmon river: Starting Thursday at 12:01 a.m., all fishing for kings on the Kenai River is over.
This means no catch and release nor any targeting of kings. Any king salmon caught accidently must not even be brought to the surface before being immediately released.
"This run, at this time, is projected to be one of, if not the lowest, return on record dating back into the early 1980s," said Robert Begich, area management biologist in Soldotna for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Records before the 1980s contained little systematic data like today, he said, though historical accounts point to a huge king crash 40 to 50 yeas ago.
As the second run of Kenai kings approaches its halfway point, biologists are concerned it won't reach even minimum escapement goals, Begich said. Those minimums assure enough spawners make it upstream to create future runs.
"That's why we closed the fishery," he said. "It's not even going to be close."
The first king run, in June, was also so weak that fishing was banned. Biologists and sportfishing advocates were hopeful the second would come in stronger, but that has not happened.
Now, like dominoes falling, the state also closed the Kasilof River to king fishing effective Thursday, as well as sport fishing for kings in upper Cook Inlet. The Associated Press reported that federally managed subsistence fisheries on the Kenai River were also closed to king fishing.
The end of king salmon fishing came as no surprise to Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
The state had already imposed a series of restrictions in an effort to salvage some angling -- a ban on bait, for instance, and catch-and-release- only fishing for all but the smallest jacks and the largest trophy kings.
But even those steps were clearly not enough to protect the spawners, Gease said. Sonar counters indicate that the number of returning kings could end up being half the minimum by the time the run ends, Gease said.
"It's an unprecedented low return for the Kenai River king," he said. "It was the right call to close the river if you're not going to make the minimum escapement."
On the other hand, sockeyes are coming in strong, perhaps too strong for escapement goals. That's good news for the commercial drift fleet, which can avoid most king bycatch, but not for commercial setnet fishermen, who can't keep kings from getting caught in their sockeye nets and have seen their season drastically reduced. A strong run of reds is also good for shore anglers and dipnetters, but not necessarily for guides, who make most of their money from visitors who fish for kings.
"A lot of people have cancelled," said Dave Goggia of Hooky Charters and the president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association.
With 2012 representing the fourth year of declining runs of kings, Goggia is concerned for the future of his profession on the Kenai.
"The people that got shut down last year, that went no bait, they got a sour taste in their mouth. The people that got shut down in June, they got a sour tasked in their mouth. Now this? Even more people. Word's going to get out soon that, 'Hey, you can't count on Alaska anymore,' and it's going to be devastating," Goggia said.
Gease, of the sportfishing association, said he holds no grudges against Fish and Game.
"They're managing it textbook like they should manage it," he said.
Goggia would like to see more done to reduce the bycatch of ocean kings in the North Pacific by trawlers targeting pollock and cod. The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council has recently imposed new rules against the bycatch after a spike in inadvertent netting of kings, but Goggia said that effort wasn't enough.
Reach Richard Mauer at email@example.com or 257-4345.
By RICHARD MAUER
Anchorage Daily News