Despite recent upswing, biologists uncertain king salmon slump is over

Sean Doogan

Alaska anglers optimistic about promising early king salmon returns on many rivers -- after years of disappearing fish -- may want to temper any warm, fuzzy feelings about the largest of the state's salmon. Despite an increase in chinook salmon returns in some waterways compared to last year, biologists stress it's too early to say if the current numbers will be sustained the rest of the season.

Most king salmon returns appear to be running 10 days to two weeks ahead of the average. Warm spring weather has increased water temperatures throughout Alaska, hastening the fish's annual sprint to fresh water. But an early return doesn't necessarily mean a big return.

And an increase over 2013 wouldn't be much to crow about, given record or near-record low returns of king salmon last year from Southcentral Alaska to the Interior.

While kings have returned in greater numbers in many Southcentral areas, some of the most productive fisheries are man-made or enhanced runs, meaning the fish swimming there began life in a state hatchery.

In Southeast, saltwater fishing for chinooks has been downright hot, but those fish are temporary visitors. They are destined for spawning grounds in British Columbia, Washington and Oregon, where chinook returns are off the charts, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

But native king salmon returns in many parts of Alaska remain weak.

"It will be at least another year for production to increase for Alaska king salmon," said Ed Jones, Fish and Game's project leader for the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative. "This isn't the turn."

The Chinook Salmon Research Initiative was launched by Gov. Sean Parnell last year to determine what's happening to Alaska's native fish, particularly king salmon. Chinook returns have crashed across the state since about 2008 -- with the notable exception of the Nushagak River near Bristol Bay. There, more than 110,000 kings returned each of the last two years, vaulting the 280-mile-long river into the discussion about which waterway is Alaska's top king salmon producer. The Kenai River, home to some of the largest king salmon on the planet, and the Yukon River, which supports subsistence fishermen who live throughout the western and interior parts of the state, have been among the hardest hit.

So too has the Kuskokwim River, which travels 750 miles through Southwest Alaska. Fishing there for king salmon has been shut down, with net restrictions in place for subsistence fishermen. Federal fish managers said they hope to provide about 1,000 king salmon to villages over a 200-mile stretch of the Kuskokwim River for cultural purposes. But local residents insist the gesture won't be enough to feed them. Severe restrictions and outright closures have hampered king salmon fishing in the last three years on both the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers.

But some glints of optimism are appearing. In the Deshka River in the Susitna Valley, more than 10,700 king salmon have already gone past a weir set up in the river so biologists can count them. That's nearly 10,000 more than the Deshka got by this time last year, and more than 80 percent of what the Alaska Department of Fish and Game says is the minimum number of fish needed to sustain the run.

Biologists say the run, like many across Alaska, appears to be running about 10 days earlier than usual. But biologists are confident enough about its strength that, on Friday, they lifted bait and single-hook restrictions should allow anglers to catch more fish. "We will see how it goes," said Sam Ivey, the Matanuska and Susitna Valley regional sportfish biologist for Fish and Game. Despite the optimism, fishery managers said they still expect the Deshka king run to be below average.

Weak Copper River king run

Some river systems with huge returns of other salmon species are suffering a king shortage. The Copper River -- famous for producing some of the first fresh Alaska salmon of the year for hungry markets across the globe -- has experienced a reduction in the number of kings personal use subsistence netters can keep. Beginning Saturday, those fishermen were only allowed one king, down from the four they could take earlier this spring. Fisheries managers said the Copper River commercial king salmon harvest is the fourth lowest since 1980.

On the mighty Yukon River -- which runs almost 2,000 miles from western Canada to the west coast of Alaska -- king salmon fishing is banned. As of Thursday, more than 33,000 kings had been counted at the Pilot Station weir 121 miles from the mouth of the river. That's nearly one-third the total counted for all of 2013, when about 117,000 kings eventually made their way upriver in a run that continued into mid-July.

But this year's early number still isn't big enough for both state and federal fisheries managers to loosen current fishing restrictions.

"Given what we have seen, I wouldn't get too inspired by it," Jones said.

On the Kenai River, perhaps Alaska's most-famed sportfishing stream, nearly 3,000 early-run kings have already made their way up the river, according to sonar counts from Fish and Game. That's ahead of the pace of the 2012 and 2013 runs -- but behind 2011, when about 10,000 Kenai kings reached their spawning beds. Most importantly, it puts this year's run on pace to reach the minimum escapement goal of 5,300 kings state biologists seek to sustain the run. That's a goal they missed badly last year, even though fishing for king salmon was closed after being restricted to catch-and-release only in the early part of the season. King fishing has been banned again this year, though a strong finish to the early run ending June 30 may improve prospects for the late run.

Other Alaska rivers and saltwater fisheries are getting good returns. More fish are returning to Ship Creek and the Eklutna Tailrace, two Anchorage-area hatchery runs. And fishing on the saltwater, especially in Southeast Alaska, has been excellent, according to biologists. But people catching those fish are benefiting from a resurgence of chinook salmon populations in British Columbia, Canada, Oregon, and Washington. Though caught in Alaska waters, those fish are ultimately destined for Pacific Northwest waterways such as the Columbia River. After years of small runs, the Columbia River is getting huge numbers of chinook salmon return.

"What we typically see is that when stocks in the south do well, we do the opposite," Jones said.

Problems at sea

So what's happening to Alaska king salmon? Biologists point to the sea.

"Once we get some better ocean conditions, we're sure the kings will rebound," said Eric Volk, a Fish and Game fisheries scientist. "We've seen these kinds of downturns before -- in the late '70s, for instance."

The first indication things are turning around will likely be a resurgence of jacks -- small, young and usually male salmon that return to freshwater too early. While it is easy for biologists to count the number of smolt leaving a river system, it is almost impossible to track them in the ocean. King salmon generally spend about 18 months in freshwater before heading to sea. Once in the ocean, they spend between one and four years at sea, before returning to their home waters to spawn and die.

Jacks are a good indicator of how fish from different age classes are surviving. If a lot of jacks begin to show up, it indicates the fish are surviving at higher rates in saltwater. That should signal the return of more king salmon in a year or two. But that hasn't happened yet across much of Alaska.

Despite the downturn in king salmon runs across most of the state, biologists are confident things will eventually turn around.

"It's not a matter of if it's going to turn around," Jones said. "For me, it's a question of when."

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