The Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced fishing closures for most of upper Cook Inlet and the Susitna drainage Friday in an effort to conserve lame king salmon runs.
Sport fishing in the Susitna River drainage for kings will close Monday. The regularly scheduled commercial set-net fishing period in the Northern district of upper Cook Inlet also was cancelled.
Poor Deshka River weir counts combined with angler reports and staff surveys all indicate a weaker-than-anticipated run of king salmon to the popular Cook Inlet fishery.
Typically, when the Deshka numbers look bad other runs in the area will be weak, too, regional management biologist for the state Division of Sport Fish Tom Vania said. The Deshka is the strongest producer of king salmon in the area.
"When the Deshka is poor, it's sort of a crapshoot with the others," Vania said.
The outlook for the Deshka River was bad even before the season started. The expected king salmon run of about 21,600 fish was below average.
As of Friday, about 60 percent of the escapement should have passed by the weir located seven upstream of the river mouth. And so far, fewer than 7,000 fish have passed – with the total escapement projected to be about 11,350 fish even with the closure. That's short of the river's escapement goal of between 13,000 and 28,000 fish.
Fewer than 900 Deshka kings are expected to be saved by the closure.
"All fish entering the lower Deshka River and the rest of the Susitna drainage must be conserved if escapement goals are to be attained," the emergency order says.
King restrictions across the board
King salmon restrictions were enacted before the first fish was caught this year. Included was reducing the amount of kings sport fishermen could catch from five to two. Fishermen were also restricted to using only one unbaited hook in most areas, excluding the Deshka; however, bait fishing was banned there, too, earlier this week.
Fishing for kings in creeks off the Parks Highway -- including Sheep, Willow and Montana creeks -- was also prohibited.
Those areas are easily accessible and often have a low king returns, Vania said.
For commercial fishermen, the state closed some of the most productive areas for king fishing in the Northern Management Area in 2011, in an attempt to protect the kings. That area, from the wood chip dock south of Tyonek to the Susitna River remained close this year as well.
That closure alone was expected to save half of the annual commercial king harvest in the area, said Pat Shields, upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. This year the period northern district set-netters could fish was reduced from 12 hours to six, another 50 percent reduction.
The cap on the commercial northern district fishery is 12,500 kings for the season, a level not achieved since the 1990s, Shields said. Over the last five years the commercial fishery, on average, has caught 2,423 king salmon each season.
There was no word Friday afternoon whether the east-side set-net fishery of the Kasilof section of the central district will close. That fishery for red salmon includes kings headed for the Kenai River, which is now closed to sport anglers. It's set to open Monday.
Robert Meals employs a number of college students who work as fishing guides at his TriRivers Charters operation in Talkeetna each summer. They can make up to $5,000 in tips alone during a season. The odds of that happening are slim now that king fishing is closed.
Talkeetna River anglers will be particularly affected by the king closure. The run hasn't even hit the river yet.
"This is 31 years (of fishing the Talkeetna), and I've never seen such a lack of fish like these past couple of years," Meals said.
Meals is closing his king fishing business for the entire month of July. A full-service charter, he will offer trout fishing trips to clients who've scheduled king trips. He doesn't expect many takers.
Fellow Mat-Su guide Andy Couch has lost 21 trips to the king closure, costing him thousands of dollars. Some clients could choose to book a saltwater charter elsewhere in Alaska, but those could fill quickly.
Since bait was banned early in the week, Couch has seen a decline of fish and people on the Deshka -- the last fishing "holdout" in the Susitna drainage. He didn't even go out Friday due to cancellations.
"It's going fast on things shutting down," he said.
Brent Johnson is a commercial set-net fisher who fishes from the Ninilchik beach on the east side of Cook Inlet. He won't be affected by the northern district closure, but if the state decides not to open the east-side fishery on Monday -- or close it early -- he's in the bull's-eye.
"In the spring, I sweat bullets," he said.
On a normal fishing day Johnson and his crew will catch about 1,000 red salmon and only five kings.
Johnson, who's also a Kenai Peninsula borough assembly member, makes about $10,000 in a season. Set-net fishing is how he makes a living. While he has money set aside for bad times, he worries about the young people who work for him. Generally they don't have any savings and rely on fishing incomes.
"I always try to fish real hard early on to make sure that we're all making some money," Johnson said. "I've heard of those people that go to Bristol Bay and can't pay for plane tickets home. Luckily, we've never done that but, gosh, I'm still scared for my guys."
Johnson drove past the beach Friday and saw 10 fish jump out of the water. He hopes he can be out there Monday morning.
"I guess the powers that be are quite concerned," he said. "Now I'm just listening for the word."
Contact Suzanna Caldwell at suzanna(at)alaskadispatch.com