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Fish and Game proposes sweeping changes to Cook Inlet salmon goals

A Cook Inlet drift gillnet salmon boat. (Rashah McChesney / AJOC file)

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s recommendations for salmon escapement goal ranges in Upper Cook Inlet are out significantly earlier than they have been in past years.

Upper Cook Inlet, which reaches north from the Kasilof River, encompasses a number of heavily fished salmon stocks, including the Kenai and Susitna rivers. ADFG reviews the escapement goal ranges for the rivers every three years or so and makes recommendations before the Board of Fisheries takes up the proposals for the area during the in-cycle meeting.

For several rivers in the Mat-Su Valley, ADFG is recommending decreasing the lower end of sockeye escapement goal ranges, meaning that fewer salmon would have to make it up the river before ADFG determines the goal had been met.

On the Kenai and Russian rivers, the sockeye sustainable escapement goals would tick up slightly. The goals are recommended for the 2020 season, so the current goals would remain in effect for the 2019 season.

The sustainable escapement goal for sockeye on the Kenai River, which is the largest sockeye salmon river in the region, would increase slightly to 750,000 to 1.3 million. The Kasilof River’s sockeye biological escapement goal would decrease slightly to 140,000 to 320,000 fish.

The early-run sockeye goal for the Russian River — a popular sportfishing river on the Kenai Peninsula — would remain the same, but the late-run sustainable escapement goal would adjust to 44,000 to 85,000, which is an increase in the lower end but a decrease in the upper end. The sockeye salmon goals in the Susitna River drainage would remain unchanged.

The king goals in the Susitna drainage would change substantially, though. ADFG is recommending consolidating and revising the Susitna River king stock escapement goals into four “sub-basins”: the Deshka River, the Eastside Susitna River, the Talkeetna River and the Yentna River.

Consolidating the goals would have advantages over the current single aerial survey model as they are based on total escapement as opposed to an index, derived using stock-recruit analyses and could account for years in which surveys were not conducted, according to the memo.

“Each sub-basin is unique in terms of geography, harvest and accessibility, and therefore the regulatory structure varies between areas; streams within each sub-basin tend to share the same set of regulations,” the memo states.

The Deshka River would have a biological escapement goal of 9,000 to 18,000; the Eastside Susitna River would have a sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 25,000; the Talkeetna River sub-basin would have a sustainable escapement goal of 9,000 to 17,500; and the Yentna River sub-basin would have a sustainable escapement goal of 13,000 to 22,000.

Alexander Creek and Chulitna River would keep their own separate sustainable escapement goals of 1,900 to 3,700 and 1,200 to 2,900 king salmon, respectively.

The Little Susitna River aerial survey goal would be lowered slightly to 700 to 1,500 kings, and the Crooked Creek king salmon goal would be increased slightly to 700 to 1,400 kings. The Kenai River’s king goals would remain unchanged.

The coho salmon goal in the Deshka River would remain the same, while the Jim Creek and Little Susitna River coho goals would be lowered slightly; the Jim Creek goal’s upper end would increase, according to the memo.

Escapement goals are complicated, with multiple types and methodologies for determining them. At its most recent meeting, the Board of Fisheries noted that there is significant confusion around how escapement goals are developed and why certain rivers have one type while others have another.

The Upper Cook Inlet escapement goal memo was released several months earlier than originally intended, in part because of public requests for the goals to be released before proposals for the 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting are due.

“The department recognizes the importance of releasing escapement goal recommendations earlier in the year so the public may submit proposals relative to goal recommendations before the deadline of (April 10),” the memo states. “Thus, department staff completed their review on an accelerated timeline, and developed recommendations for UCI salmon escapement goals.”

Kevin Delaney, a former fisheries biologist for ADFG and currently a consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the early release of the escapement goal recommendations allows stakeholders to gather more information as they finalize their proposals and review them for the next year before the meeting in early 2020.

“This is the first time ever (ADFG has) gotten them out before proposals were due,” he said. “That should be applauded.”

The slight uptick on the Kenai River sockeye goal doesn’t necessarily shift any more fish toward the sportfishery, Delaney said. The recommended lower end of the goal is only 50,000 fish more than the current lower end, and the Kenai River can see 50,000 fish come through on a single day during the peak of the sockeye run.

The lowering of the goal on the Kasilof River might be a concern, but the Kenai River is the major driver in the region for sockeye salmon, he said.

“The big issue is the Kenai River, and 50,000 fish isn’t going to make a huge difference,” he said.

The Kenai River’s sockeye salmon management plan is immensely complicated, with three management tiers based on the strength of the forecasted run and an in-river escapement goal as well as the sustainable escapement goal.

The in-river goal is set at 900,000 to 1.1 million sockeye, which accounts for a sportfishery harvest of about 200,000 sockeye in the river above the sonar. The recommendation included in the escapement goal memo only updates the SEG; adjusting the in-river goal would be up to the Board of Fisheries, as that’s an allocative decision compared to escapement goals which are management decisions.

Mike Wood, a Northern District setnet fishermen, said it was interesting how some goals decreased in the Susitna River drainage while others increased in the Kenai River drainage.

The Susitna valley has struggled with decreasing returns in recent years, with closures for salmon fishing, and the users are concerned that not enough fish are making it past the commercial fisheries in Kodiak and central Cook Inlet to return to spawn.

Wood said he was glad to see the department address goals in the Lewis, Theodore and Chuitna, smaller rivers on the west side, and noted that better genetics data from ADFG has helped the staff separate the Cook Inlet west side rivers into individual stocks.

“I was glad to see that, because it does have implications,” he said. “They’ve kept the king salmon closed to anything above Tyonek for just about 20 years now to let more fish return to the Susitna River. It’s good to see the Chuitna is bouncing back, and it does make sense to lower it a little bit in the Theodore and not have it at all in the Lewis. The Lewis doesn’t even reach (Cook) Inlet anymore.”

Lowering escapement goals for Susitna drainages is concerning, he said, in part because of the nature of the stream. Spawner-return analyses — which calculate how many offspring return on average per spawning salmon — have shown that the Susitna is not as productive as a river like the Kenai, and thus would need more spawners to produce the same volume of return, he said.

Wood, who also chairs the Mat-Su Borough’s Fish and Wildlife Commission, said the group is looking at the recommendations and working on a Northern District management plan and how that connects to regulations on setnetters in the area.

“Maybe things will come back they way they’re supposed to,” he said. “But just lowering our goals, our expectations, I don’t think is wise in general. I’m cautious of it. Does it mean that we should lower them and then allow people to kill more of them? I don’t think that that really works to the advantage of the fish.”

Proposals for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting are due April 10.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at elizabethearl@gmail.com.

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