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Fishing

A slow year for dipnetters: Fish harvest on the Kenai, Kasilof rivers down slightly in 2016

Dipnetters walk away from the mouth of the Kenai River on July 18. (Sarah Bell / Alaska Dispatch News file)

According to data from last year's Kenai River sockeye run, the fishing was steady. More than enough fish made it up the river to spawn and commercial fishermen were slightly over their 10-year average harvest. But for dipnetters?

Slow fishing and a lower-than-average overall harvest.

Some 259,000 fish were harvested by permit holders last year, according to preliminary harvest numbers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game released earlier this week. That's down 31 percent from 2015 and trailing both the 10- and five-year averages for the popular sockeye salmon fishery.

Why?

In recent years, many have flocked to the river when a large pulse of fish entered the river. Matt Miller, of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sportfish division, said only 30,000-40,000 fish entered the mouth of the river on a typical day this summer. Optimal dipnetting days are when 50,000-100,000 fish head upriver.

last year, the sonar at Mile 19 of the Kenai River only counted two days with a run strength of more than 50,000 fish.

"People are talking and kind of looking at graphs and waiting for that big spike that we've seen for the last two or three years," Miller said in a phone interview this week. "It didn't happen."

Fewer people collected permits to use the fishery last year, with only 31,000 issued, according to Fish and Game — down from almost 35,000 in 2015. Approximately 10 percent to 15 percent of all permit holders report they did not fish, according to the agency.

Miller said escapement on the river was good, with 1.38 million fish making their way past the sonar. That's on the high end of biologists' goal for maintaining a strong run.

But slow fishing on the Kenai prompted Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, to request additional openers for dipnetters after the start of a slow harvest. Wielechowski's request was not granted.

Thousands of people were on the Kenai River to dipnet for sockeye salmon on July 19, 2015. (Anne Raup / Alaska Dispatch News file)

Commercial fishermen in pursuit of the same red salmon harvested 1.78 million fish headed for the Kenai River last year, according to Aaron DuPuis, commercial fisheries assistant area management biologist in Fish and Game's Soldotna office. That's up slightly from the 1.76 million 10-year average.

Other popular dipnetting areas in Alaska also saw lower-than-average harvests. The Kasilof River, also on the Kenai Peninsula, was down sharply too, with approximately 58,000 fish harvested by dipnetters in 2016, down 35 percent from the previous year.

The Copper River also saw lower-than-average returns in harvest, according to preliminary Fish and Game numbers. In the Glennallen subdistrict, 84,663 sockeye were harvested, and 142,422 were harvested in the Chitina subdistrict. Both are below the five- and 10-year averages for the fishery, according to area management biologist Mark Somerville.

Fish Creek, located outside of Wasilla, did not open to dipnetters in 2016.

The city of Kenai earned $574,768 in revenues from usage fees last year according to a report from the city. But its expenses were $9,000 more.

But City of Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank hesitated to make any correlation between the run strength and the overall revenue collected by the city.

"There's so many other variables. I mean, what's the weather like? Everyone is happy when the weather is good and they're catching fish. When they're not catching fishing and the weather's bad, the city is one of the lowest (places) on the face of the Earth," he said. "It's an interesting event every year."

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