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Bleak king salmon run predicted for Alaska's world-famous Kenai River this summer

Craig Medred
Anglers can't expect to celebrate king salmon catches in the Kenai River this summer. Forecasts expect the return of the largest salmon species will be one of the weakest on record. Keith Parker / cc via flickr

A catastrophic return of late-run king salmon to the Kenai River is being forecast for this summer by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

A report prepared for the Alaska Board of Fisheries -- convening Jan. 31 in Anchorage -- suggests the run might not meet minimum escapement goals even if no fish are caught in the in-river sport fishery, a major player in the Kenai Peninsula tourism economy, or the commercial fisheries, which pick up kings off the mouth of the river as bycatch while pursuing red salmon.

The report -- titled 2014 Outlook for the Kenai River Chinook Salmon Late-Run -- forecasts a total run of 19,700 fish, but warns that "there is some uncertainty in the 2014 forecast estimate. The 2013 forecast was for a total run of approximately 29,000 fish, while the preliminary total run is approximately 19,800, about 33 percent less than the forecast."

A 33 percent shortfall from that 2014 number would leave the total return at about 13,000 fish -- 2,000 kings below a spawning goal of 15,000. And the spawning goal itself is a reduction from in the heyday of the river when 50,000 to 60,000 of the big fish came back every July and August.

Even if the return comes in at 19,700 as forecast, the report notes "this run would be the lowest in the 29 years of record, approximately the same abundance as the 2013 run, and would be less than one-half of the 1986-2013 average run of approximately 57,000 fish."

Scientists do not know what has caused Kenai king runs to crash, but ocean conditions are suspected. An early return of Kenai kings in May and June is in as much trouble as the late run.

The forecast there is for 2,230 fish, less than half the minimum escapement goal. Historically, an average of about 13,500 fish came back in early summer and supported a robust sport fishery. The early sport fishery is now dormant, and the mid-summer sport fishery is dying.

All of this comes at a time when the Columbia River king salmon of the Pacific Northwest have been returning in record numbers. Those fish once were thought to be endangered because of habitat changes related to in-river hydropower projects and large-scale farming throughout the river's drainage. Scientists now believe any changes due to habitat losses are being mitigated by great conditions for Pacific Northwest fish on the Gulf of Alaska ranges they prowl for food.

The opposite appears to be the case for Alaska king salmon. Scientists long ago noted that when Pacific Northwest king -- or chinook -- runs are strong, those in Alaska are weak.

"Our synthesis of climate and fishery data from the North Pacific sector highlights the existence of a very large scale, interdecadal, coherent pattern of environmental and biotic changes," University of Washington scientists noted in a 1997 study. They warned then "that this climatic-regime driven model of salmon production has broad implications for fishery management. The most critical implication concerns periods of low productivity."

The state of Alaska is now facing one of those periods on the Kenai. What to do about it will be one of the biggest topics facing the state Board of Fisheries when it meets in Anchorage later this month.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com