Compass: Act now, or we'll lose Kenai River kings

The world famous Kenai River king salmon are facing a major crisis, with historic low returns of this special salmon to their spawning grounds. I say this as a former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries and a concerned citizen still involved in fishery issues. As an attorney, I represent the Kenai King Conservation Alliance.

The late run of Kenai kings has been in decline. Late-run fish enter the river from late June through mid-August and spawn in the main stem of the Kenai. These fish are traditionally caught in large numbers by sportfishermen in July, and by setnet fishermen in July and August. The drift gillnet fleet in Cook Inlet catches very few of these salmon.

There appear to be several reasons for the low returns: poor ocean survival, catches by the high-seas trawlers, setnet catches in Cook Inlet and marginal productivity. And there may be others.

The effects of each of these on Kenai king returns are debatable. What is beyond dispute is that total Kenai king returns in 2012 were the smallest on record. This year's late run now appears headed for another record low. The Department of Fish and Game, which manages the fishery, is on the verge of not achieving the minimum spawning goal.

In addition to declining numbers of fish, the kings returning this year are smaller than in the past. Early indications are that more than half of the 2013 return consists of small males. The number of breeding pairs (large males and females) now in the Kenai could be fewer than 2,000.

These numbers indicate real trouble for Kenai kings.

In 2012, in response to a record low run, both the setnet and sport fisheries were closed by Fish and Game for conservation purposes. Because of the closure, the late run of Kenai kings achieved the minimum spawning goal. With setnetting closed, the drift gillnet fleet fished almost continuously, and at season's end the commercial harvest of sockeyes was well above average, harvest goals for other species were met and adequate numbers of king salmon survived to spawn.

In 2013, the in-river sport fishery has been managed conservatively from the first day of the season, and rightly so. But this has not been the case for the setnet fishery, which can fish every Monday and Thursday, the regular periods provided for in the Board of Fisheries' management plan. In addition, the setnet fishery has been given an additional 12 hours a week, roughly, through emergency orders by Fish and Game.

A group of setnet fishermen have sued the state for more time to fish for sockeyes. The case will be heard this week. The setnetters are insisting they have an absolute right to fish more frequently despite the low abundance of Kenai kings. They have already caught more than 2,000 late-run kings, more than double the sport catch. The department should refuse these demands when there is so uncertainty about whether minimum spawning goals will be met.

Conservation must be the watchword. Fish and Game acknowledges there is a distinct risk of overharvest of late-run kings. As this is written, department managers are weighing a decision to close both the sport and setnet fisheries as early as Wednesday.

Fish and Game needs to manage conservatively. Every fishery that harvests Kenai kings should be restricted or closed. The failure to act could result in the loss of these unique salmon for all fishery groups forever.

Dan Coffey is a former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries and former member of the Anchorage Assembly.