The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued three emergency orders on Tuesday closing or restricting king salmon sport fishing in the Susitna River drainage and Little Susitna River drainage as well as king salmon commercial fishing in the Northern district of the Upper Cook Inlet.
Citing below-average king salmon returns in recent years, Fish and Game said in a news release that sport fishing for king salmon will be closed in the entire Susitna River drainage, though catch-and-release will be open in the Deshka and Yentna river drainages. In the Little Susitna River drainage, king salmon fishing will be allowed, but the fish may only be retained on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays. Those orders go into effect May 1 and run through July 13.
Commercial king salmon fishing with setnets in all waters of the northern district of upper Cook Inlet will also be closed May 28 and June 4, 11 and 18, Fish and Game said.
"It's no secret to anyone that our king salmon stocks have been in an area of low productivity lately," said Matt Miller, a sport fish management coordinator with Fish and Game. "(Restrictions) can have huge impacts and the department realizes that and takes restrictions very seriously. Our main objective is to manage these stocks for sustainability."
Over the past decade, king salmon populations in the Northern Cook Inlet river systems and statewide have trended down.
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The Susitna, one of Alaska's most important chinook fisheries, includes the famed salmon strongholds of the Little Susitna and Deshka rivers and the fly-in destination of Lake Creek up the Yentna River.
Fishing businesses around the Mat-Su warned Monday that reductions in Susitna king fishing could hurt the state's tourism economy.
Several criticized state fish managers for taking so long to make a decision. No information was available, for example, as to forecasts for the numbers of king salmon returning to the Susitna system this summer.
"The trouble is, it's March 12 and we still don't know what the forecasts are or what the regulations are going to be," fishing guide Pat Donelson said Monday. "People have long since planned vacations, bought airline tickets, booked hotels."
Word started getting out just last week that the entire Susitna could get shut down for king salmon fishing, Donelson said. By this week, everybody was wondering what the state would do.
"We got blindsided," he said.
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The state finalized Susitna run projections a few weeks ago but wanted to release the forecasts with the emergency order and press release, said Miller.
"The three of those are really a package we try to issue out at the same time," Miller said.
Andy Couch, a Little Su guide who serves on the Matanuska-Susitna Borough's fish and wildlife commission, met with Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten and state sport fish director Tom Brookover last week.
In a statement filed with state officials, Couch criticized the lack of projections for Deshka River kings. He referenced a similar scenario last year in the Copper River sport fishery, when the state shut down sport fishing at the start of the season only to see chinook return at higher-than-expected numbers.
Members of the Valley legislative caucus also signed a letter sent to Cotten requesting him to delay and reconsider "this devastating decision," according the Fight4fish website operated by a grass-roots group that advocates for sport fishing interests in Cook Inlet.
The state's order doesn't change regulations for a separate hatchery run of kings into the Eklutna Tailrace, a popular fishing area off the Old Glenn Highway.
The orders also limit gear to one unbaited, single-hook, artificial lure for sport fishing in the Susitna and Little Susitna drainages. One of the orders establishes an annual limit of two king salmon greater than 20 inches in length in the Little Susitna River drainage.