State fish biologists plan to meet Friday afternoon to assess whether to allow hundreds of Cook Inlet commercial setnetters to put out their nets Saturday for sockeyes, which would dramatically affect the chance for success this weekend by Kenai Peninsula dipnetters and sport fishermen.
There are about 450 registered setnetters in Upper Cook Inlet, on the east side of the Inlet, and if there's an opening, most will put their nets out, said Pat Shields, the Soldotna-based area fisheries management biologist.
When setnetters work the inlet, the number of reds heading into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers drops dramatically within a few hours, Shields said.
How a setnet opening might affect the hugely popular dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai depends on how many sockeye salmon hit the beach. In some cases, a setnet opening can choke off the run. In other cases, the number of fish swarming the mouth of the river overpowers the capacity of the setnet fishery and dipnetting remains good.
Dipnetting opened Thursday on the Kenai River and while dozens of Alaskans showed up, fishing was slow. Some commercial driftnet boats were out, but setnetting was shut down. Drift boats don't have the same quick impact as setnets, Shields said.
Big winds, high seas and sideways rain on Thursday kept many drift boats from fishing, he said. The weather was too rough for Fish and Game to run its northern test fishery boat. The boat's catches have been a good predictor of when a surge of fish is about to hit.
More than 150,000 sockeyes have already passed the Kenai River sonar counting station. That's more than fish managers want to see at this point in the run to meet optimum spawning numbers, Shields said. But managers also want to ensure enough kings reach spawning grounds. Kenai king numbers have been low in recent years.
This year is the first time the Cook Inlet commercial setnetters have been allowed to fish only by emergency order in an effort to protect kings. Under the new rules, setnetters get a maximum of 36 hours of fishing within a week. But they are barred from fishing within a 36-hour window centered on Friday to allow some fish through for weekend dipnetters and sportfishermen, Shields said.
The earliest setnetters could start fishing is 7 a.m. Saturday, and they could go for 15 hours, he said.
Managers plan to meet Friday afternoon but may not decide on the setnet opening until Friday evening, he said.
An Upper Cook Inlet driftnet emergency opening already is set for Friday from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m.
Call 267-2512 for Fish and Game's recorded updates.