The Kenai River closes to king salmon anglers Friday, and with commercial fishing set to begin Monday, tension is building over who's bearing the burden of king salmon conservation.
Record low king runs have forced the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close Kenai king fishing for fear of depleting the already-sensitive population. Returns expected to be low have been dismal, and so far only 4,000 early-run kings have passed the in-river sonar counter. That makes the early Kenai run the worst on record.
Setnetters fish for abundant red salmon, but thousands of kings are caught in the process.
Area sport fishing advocates agree with the department's decision to close the Kenai, but worry that not enough is being done to limit commercial fishermen.
"Things could get ugly down there if they choose to ignore us," said Dave Goggia, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and owner of Hooky Charters in Kenai.
While the commercial opening could still be pushed back or cancelled, there were no plans to do so as of Thursday afternoon.
"That said, how we manage that fishery will be with king salmon conservation in mind," said Pat Shields, upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Set nets and kings
Set-net fishing is where a net is released into water, connected to a floating boat and attached to the beach. The nets are usually deployed in shallow water, and even though kings swim deep, it's often not deep enough to avoid the nets.
Last year, 1.6 million sockeye salmon were caught in set nets in the east-side fishery of the Kasilof section of the central district, located between Ninilchik and Boulder Point. In the same period, 7,700 kings were caught.
Shields said Fish and Game's commercial fishing managers work closely with sport fish biologists to monitor the number of kings counted at the sonar eight miles up the Kenai River. If king numbers remain weak, commercial fishing will react accordingly, he said.
The number of sockeye salmon expected to return to upper Cook Inlet is 6.2 million, with about 4 million of them expected to return to the Kenai River.
The management plan for the commercial fishery, which includes the number of hours fishing, is based on the number of sockeye salmon expected to return. The Kasilof River salmon management plan, which runs June 25 to July 7, calls for a maximum of 48 hours per week spent set-net fishing on top of two established 12-hour periods.
However, those extended hours could be reduced to conserve the kings. That's what happened last year, Shields said.
Last year, Shields said, the state also allowed drift netters to head out at times when the set-nets couldn’t fish in an attempt to conserve king salmon. Drifters, with open nets in deep water, catch far fewer kings than set-netters.
Pressure on sport fishermen
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, can’t understand the calculation that shuts catch-and-release sport fishing while allowing setnetters to fish. He contends that if 1,000 king salmon swim up the river, there's a 50 percent chance fisherman will catch them with bait. Take bait away and that effectiveness drops to 20 percent. Add in that only 7 percent of all fish that are caught and released die, that adds up to about 15 fish out of every 1,000 perish.
Using those numbers, Gease said maybe 60 king salmon would die under catch-and-release restrictions if 4,000 king salmon make it up river.
Last year, 100 king salmon were caught by setnetters on June 25, the first day of the commercial fishing season.
"You can't afford a catch-and-release mortality of (60) fish, but you can afford the mortality of set-net fishing?" Gease said. "Where's the burden of sharing the conservation?"
KRSA took part in creating a drift management plan that expanded the corridor where the drift fleet can fish. In the old corridor, only 100 boats could fish at once. Once it expanded, 400 boats could fish in a wider area that focused on red salmon catches.
The group also pushed for allowing the drift fleet to go out separate of setnetters, allowing for pulses of fish to make it past the beaches.
Gease and the KRSA have worked with the Division of Commercial Fisheries to give them "more tools for their tool kit" in making decisions over king salmon conservation, including changed boundary areas and shallow nets. Each proposal was shot down.
"What we find is a tool box that isn't very robust," he said.
Goggia said he's seen many guides struggle when king fishing is closed on the Kenai, especially ones that focus on king salmon.
Nevertheless, long-term conservation is most important.
"You know, while that is real, and people may go out of business," he said, "the guys realize if the fish aren't in the river, we won't have a viable business anyhow."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com