A new theory has emerged to explain why the world's largest king salmon are disappearing from Alaska's Kenai River: Catch-and-release anglers are massacring them with kindness.
In a 19-page document that mirrors the format of a scientific paper, Roland Maw, who holds a doctorate in forestry and wildlife management from the University of Alberta in Canada but has for years been involved in commercial salmon research in Alaska, contends that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has seriously underestimated the number of Kenai kings that die as a result of being caught and released.
A 1982 state study calculated that close to 85 percent of the Kenai kings caught and released by anglers survive. Anglers who pursue the practice have long argued it is the humane way to fish.
But Maw argues that what they do to the fish isn't all that much kinder than killing them, and he takes issue with the state's view of high survival rates.
Paper causes a stir
“Nearly half of the salmon caught/hooked and released (C&R) fail to successfully spawn," he writes in the document titled "Cumulative Salmon Mortality: The Fates and Impacts on Spawning Salmon as a Result of Catch/Hook and Release Mortality." "These C&R practices prevent salmon from reaching a spawning location or result in poor spawning success. Salmon mortality rates have a wide range of definitions in scientific reports. The Alaska Department of Fish & Game (ADF&G), federal agencies, stakeholders and the general public all limit or expand the definition of mortality. Mortality as discussed here refers to all the forms of removing salmon from a spawning population. … This total cumulative mortality is seven to 10 times greater than most of the mortality rates reported by ADF&G, especially for Chinook (king) and coho salmon."
The paper has caused a stir in various Alaska fishing communities because it comes at a time when the Kenai River is coming off what might have been the worst return of late-run kings in its history. State fisheries biologists are still crunching sonar data and correlating that with various test fisheries to fine tune their estimate on exactly how many kings returned to the river, but it is clear the run was not far above a newly lowered minimum goal of 15,000 fish.
Past returns to the river have often numbered twice that.
Late-run Kenai kings are reputed to be the largest salmon in the world. Years ago, fish of 80 pounds or more were regularly landed. The world-record king caught on rod and reel is a 97-pound, 4-ounce king pulled from the Kenai by the late Les Anderson in May 1985. That fish was an oddity.
In general, biologists say, the early-run fish are smaller than the late-run fish. In the years after Anderson set the world record, there was speculation that it was only a matter of time before someone caught the fabled 100-pounder during the late run in July. That never happened.
Instead, the fish started getting fewer and smaller. Some 400 commercial fishermen who tend setnets near the mouth of the river say the run deteriorated because state biologists let too many fish into the river. The over-escapement -- too many fish escaping human harvest to spawn -- led to the river being overpopulated with young fish in subsequent years, they argue. And competition between the young fish resulted in drastically fewer surviving to go to sea.
Fueling salmon allocation debate
Maw's theory runs 180 degrees counter to this view. If his assessment of overall mortality is correct, the state has allowed too few -- not too many -- kings to spawn in the river for years.
The argument adds more fuel to the fire of the never-ending battle of allocation.
Anglers and fishing guides who number in the tens of thousands have dueled for decades now with the setnetters who number in the hundreds over king salmon escapement numbers and catches. Anglers and guides used to catch more kings than the netters. This year, with tight restrictions in place on the river to protect the kings, Fish and Game estimated anglers killed 1,619.
Some of those fish were harvested during the brief time anglers were allowed to keep a fish. The rest are calculated to have died after being caught and released. All king fishing was prohibited late in the season because of fears about the weak run. Meanwhile, setnetters caught about 3,000 of the big fish.
They say it happened accidentally. They were fishing for abundant sockeye salmon but unavoidably snagged the big kings as bycatch. That they didn't mean to catch the fish has not eased tensions between the netters and the anglers.
Enter Maw, who likes to be referred to as "Dr. Maw" and is not only the holder of a Ph.D. in environmental sciences but is also the executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. The association represents about 560 commercial fishermen who fish driftnets in the Inlet.
This is where the politics get interesting.
Both the setnetters and the drifters are commercial fishermen, but they don't necessarily agree on how commercial fishing should be prosecuted in the waters off the north Kenai Peninsula coast just south of Anchorage, the state's largest city. One big reason they sometimes disagree is money.
If the setnetters, who snag significantly more kings as bycatch, are shut down to protect a weak return of the big fish, Fish and Game biologists often use the drift fleet to catch more red salmon and prevent those fish from plugging the river. When this happens, fish worth tens of thousands of dollars, sometimes hundreds of thousands, go into the nets of drifters instead of the nets of setnetters.
Of course, neither the drifters nor the setnetters embrace the anglers and guides who fish the river. And nearly all of the commercial fishermen would like to see catch-and-release fishing banned because it helps support a big tourist industry attracting anglers to the Kenai, and whenever those people are unsuccessful at catching fish a sizeable number go home blaming the commercial fishery for their woes.
Fishing passions run high
Most Kenai fisherman are visitors. They converge on the Peninsula from all over the country and the world, most especially from Anchorage, only 100 to 150 miles by road from the Kenai River. Passions often run high, and Maw has flamed them.
A number of guides, biologists and some setnetters have accused Maw of playing fast and loose with what little data is available on catch and release of Kenai kings. One of the guides, Greg Brush of EZ Limit Guide Service, argues that catch-and-release mortality today could be significantly lower than the 20-year-old study found because of the way people fish today.
The old study was done by Fish and Game biologists fishing with bait and treble hooks. Both have been shown to increase injuries to fish and thus mortality. Fishing now is done with lures and single hooks. Brush further notes that the kings in the old study were not only hooked, they were handled. They were taken out of the water, had a scale removed, were fitted with a tag and put back in the water.
It is now against the law for an angler to remove a king from the Kenai when state-ordered catch and release rules are in place. Handling is known to increase mortality, but nobody knows exactly how much.
"In sum," Brush said, "we can argue the actual mortality rate all we want, but regardless of whether it is 1 percent, 3 percent or the 7 to 8 percent shown in the old study, the fact of the matter is that it is reasonably low. It totally trumps the 100 percent mortality of 'catch and keep' fishing, and it is thus a very viable and effective in-river management tool that is presently underutilized."
'Lots of issues with it'
Ken Tarbox, a retired commercial fisheries biologist for the state who has supported setnetters and is an advocate of the over-escapement theory, is dismissive of Maw's treatise.
"I ... frankly find lots of issues with it, '" he said in an email. "For example, it reports non-survivor figures, which include sport harvest and netting harvest. It is a true statement those tagged fish did not survive, but most of them would not have survived without catch-and-release.
"I also found that this report is selective in the use of the data.
"I guess people put stuff out there and hopefully someone will review the report in detail. I do not want to waste my time doing it. I have better things to do."
Matt Miller, a state fisheries biologist preparing a report to the Board of Fish on in-river mortality on the Kenai, said he has the report and plans to review it but has not done so yet. He noted the report has not gone through the exhaustive peer review of a scientific paper.
Many consider Maw's work speculative, though there is no arguing with his main point that even if catch-and-release fish survive for days after being let go, there may be residual affects that lead to mortality later on or limit spawning.
A pioneering study in Bristol Bay has suggested that 5 to 15 percent of the fish that make it through the commercial net fisheries there later die, or find themselves unable to spawn, because of injures suffered in hitting nets but escaping.
The issue has not been studied with kings in Cook Inlet. The debate about Maw's study does point out how little is known.
No one knows how many kings actually spawn, or how many of their eggs survive to hatch, or how many salmon fry from those eggs emerge from the gravel of spawning beds in the spring, or how many fry live on to become smolts, or how many smolts actually go to sea each year, or what the marine food supply -- a vital factor in their survival -- might be when they get there.
The lack of information makes it hard to disagree with Tarbox's opinion.
"I want a full, independent review of the Kenai River Chinook (king) issues," he said. "ADF&G is a part of the team but not the majority and they do not control the outcome or release of information. I think it would be good to put everything on the table."
Such a review would likely turn into a battle, but it is worth nothing that the best science is sometimes formed in the crucible of debate, something state officials are sometimes loath to accept.
Just this week, they were making another effort to control information, telling Peninsula Clarion reporter Rashah McChesny that it wasn't that they didn't want to talk about new sonar data but that they were, in the words of regional sport fisheries supervisor Jim Hasbrouck, "uncomfortable talking about it because it is so new."
“We really aren’t trying to be coy," the agency's Debby Burwen added. "We simply want to be very thorough before we release the 'final' estimates. People can get quite upset if you change your estimates even a small amount once these final estimates are released."
But then, there are plenty of people already upset.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.