Facing a disastrous return, state biologists will close king salmon fishing on the Kenai River, the state's most important sport fishing stream, while imposing restrictions on nearby waterways.
Beginning at 12:01 a.m. Saturday, all sportfishing for Kenai kings -- including catch and release -- will end for the rest of the month.
Meanwhile, no naturally-produced kings -- fish with their adipose fin intact -- can be harvested from the smaller Kasilof River in June. The river sees both hatchery produced and natural fish.
And farther south on the Kenai Peninsula, bait will be banned on Deep Creek as well as the Anchor and Ninilchik rivers, while a bigger swath of Cook Inlet at the mouth of the Anchor will be off-limits.
"It's a real big part of the community," Tom Vania, regional management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, said of the Kenai. "The Valley went through this last year, and those choices are never easy. But our responsibility is first and foremost to the resource."
This season's Kenai run has started so poorly that biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game fear it may fall well short of the minimum number of fish they seek to perpetuate healthy runs -- 5,300 kings.
But even strong parent years offer no guarantee the offspring will return strong. The parents of these Kenai kings spawned four, five and six years ago, all years with strong returns.
"The department projects a total run of about 3,800 fish, indicating that with additional harvest it is likely the ... escapement goal will not be achieved," said area management biologist Robert Begich in the emergency order.
Through Wednesday, only 739 kings have been counted swimming past the fish-counting sonar at river mile 8.6. No more than 75 fish have been counted any day since sonar operations began May 16.
Only 15 swam by Wednesday.
Stretching 82 miles from Kenai Lake to Cook Inlet, the Kenai River supports the largest sport fishery in the state, from huge king salmon to chunky rainbow trout to colorful Dolly Varden and acrobatic silver salmon. Kings occupy the top rung, and many of the 400-plus Kenai River guides registered with the state chase the largest salmon this time of year.
King fishing will close downstream from the outlet of Skilak Lake for the remainder of June.
From July 1-14, it will be closed upstream from the Soldotna Bridge to the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge.
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai Sportfishing Association, said "we applaud the department" for acting, but voiced qualms about how it was carried out.
Fish and Game should have first moved to catch and release rather than making the jump from fully open to shut.
"The department should always use that tool (catch and release)," he said. "You might have had another week to collect data."
This year's return is the worst since at least 2002, when the early run also was closed early. But there are some differences -- that closure came about a week later and the minimum escapement goal was higher, about 7,200 fish; today it's 5,300 fish.
That run finished with 6,185 fish upstream.
Although Fish and Game's preseason outlook called for a below-average run, this year's Kenai return is the lowest ever at this date, Vania said. When a series of big tides this week that normally pushes a slug of fish into the river failed to do so, biologists acted.
"We would have loved to have taken a step-down measure," Vania said. "But the counts just went the wrong way. We're kind of forced to just close."
Nobody knows exactly why king returns have sputtered, though Vania and other biologists say that because the problem is widespread there is a problem at sea rather than in individual rivers.
Other troubled rivers include:
• The Deshka, where only nine kings have passed the river's fish-counting weir in the last six days -- and just 76 all season. Typically, the Deshka doesn't peak until mid-June, so biologists are hoping that the fish are merely late. Before the season, they forecast a return of 31,000 kings -- well above the river's minimum escapement goal of 13,000 fish. The Deshka return has come up short the last two years.
• The Chuitna, Lewis and Theodore rivers on the west side of Cook Inlet, which were all closed by biologists this spring after failing to meet their escapement goals for years.
• Kodiak's Karluk and Ayakulik rivers, where disastrous returns forced biologists to either ban king fishing or resort to catch-and-release only. Both rivers are seeing returns down about 90 percent from what they were during the middle of the decade.
The Kenai closure will pinch the more that 400 guides licensed to work the Kenai River as well as a variety of other businesses. The sportfishing association has estimated that Upper Cook Inlet recreational salmon fishing produces $104 million in income, and the Kenai River is a chunk of that.
"Not just the guides, but the stores in the area, the restaurants, the hotels, the taxidermists, the gas stations," noted UAA economics professor Gunnar Knapp. "A whole variety of people -- starting with the guide."
Some king salmon anglers will fish elsewhere on the Peninsula or make other recreation plans.
"It will all depend on how long it lasts," Michelle Glaves, executive director of the Soldotna Chamber of Commerce, said of the closure. "If somebody has a trip planned, guides will take their clients elsewhere to fish."
That should make the June 11 reopening of the upper Kenai River and the Russian River to red salmon and trout anglers especially anticipated this year.
Reach reporter Mike Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org  or 257-4329.
Photos: Alaska fishing 
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By MIKE CAMPBELL