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An abrupt change to Fish and Game's Kenai River salmon strategy

Craig Medred

Less than 48 hours after directing Cook Inlet commercial fishermen to hammer the tail-end of a strong run of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has ordered an end to the fishing season for commercial set netters because of fears about the returns of late-run king salmon to the same river.

Officials of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, while happy about the move to put more kings in the river, said they are baffled by the weekend maneuverings of the state agency.

Citing the shortage of kings, the association had protested an extra weekend of fishing that commercial fisheries managers awarded to netters. Both set and drift netters put their nets in the water aiming to catch sockeyes, but ended up with a significant incidental catch of the world-famous, late-run Kenai kings -- the most-prized salmon in the world. The commercial fishermen have had a banner year. Less than 4 million sockeyes were projected to return, but almost 7 million came back. The final commercial catch of sockeye could to be near double what was anticipated.

But while it has been a great year for sockeye, the fate of the fabled late-run Kenai kings has been in doubt for weeks. Fish and Game biologists have yet to say exactly how many kings they believe escaped nets and in-river anglers to make it back to their spawning grounds. The minimum goal is 17,800. Fish and Game's emergency order ending the setnet season at 11 p.m. on Sunday did not identify the latest estimate, saying only that the return is "well-below average” and adding that any hope of meeting the goals "is unlikely without" shutting down the net fisheries.

Since July 24, those nets have killed about 2,000 kings. A few more were likely killed in-river, although Fish and Game in late July ordered a ban on bait for anglers to make it hard for them to catch anything and told personal-use dipnetters they'd have to release unharmed any kings that wandered into their nets. Both the hook-and-line and dipnet fisheries closed at the end of the July, so whatever number of kings they killed came before then.

It is unknown how many kings have been caught in the setnet fishery since the end of that month, but Fish and Game is now suggesting it needs every last king salmon left on its way back to the river to hope to meet the spawning goal although there is some question if even the end-of-the-run stragglers will be enough. The state lacks a good method for counting late-run kings. The swarm of sockeyes that hits the river in July confuses a sonar meant to count the big fish. It ends up mistaking sockeyes for kings and over-counting. Fisheries biologists do in-river test netting to try to get a ratio of kings to sockeyes and then correct sonar numbers to come up with a best guess for kings.

The last public guess was near the minimum goal, but it was not the final guess. And some are saying it was overstated. There has been speculation the actual return at this point could be thousands of fish behind the minimum goal. That has only added to the questions surrounding the agency's management decisions. The questions are really pretty simple, added Kevin Delaney, a former state biologist now working as a consultant for the Kenai sportfishing association:

How many kings did Fish and Game think they had at the end of July, and if they didn't have enough, why order the commercial nets in the water over the weekend, knowing they would kill more kings?

Delaney said he simply can't figure out the rationale behind the decision-making and would like to ask his former colleagues "just what is it about your ability to estimate the abundance of king salmon in the Kenai River that prompted you to open set netting by EO (emergency order) on Saturday at 11 am then close the set nets for the season based on the need to put more king salmon in the river" at 11 p.m. Sunday?

Leaders of the sportfishing association have charged that state fisheries managers let greed trump conservation. The accusation stings those who work for an agency that has long pushed conservation as its prime directive.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.