Alaska king salmon fishing controversy doesn’t diminish sockeye salmon bounty

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This distinct ecosystem and others like it in the Last Frontier feature a slippery slope in salmon management, notably which groups should be allowed to catch which fish – and particularly how much.
Sockeye salmon are among the most sought fish species in Alaska.

SOLDOTNA, Alaska – The kings are dead. Long live the kings.

But are they, really?

The chilly reaches of the famed Kenai River were made famous by the hulking specimens of one salmon species, but its smaller cousin has assumed the throne as economic monarch of this world-class fishery, bringing out hordes hoping to score a tasty or lucrative bounty each July and leaving biologists and sport and commercial anglers wondering if the good-old days of monstrous fish are gone.

There is controversy, of course.

This is Alaska, where the robber baron mentality is alive and well. When the fish are in, it’s every man, woman and child for themselves, and each party with a vested salmon interest is quick to offer its goals in managing habitat that supports multiple species of fish – always to its own benefit. But in the end, there may be no real answers or solutions as to why king salmon returns on the Kenai seem to be lagging behind, why fish that return are smaller, what to do about real or perceived issues, and especially what the future holds for one of this planet’s top fisheries.

This distinct ecosystem and others like it in the Last Frontier feature a slippery slope in salmon management, notably which groups should be allowed to catch which fish – and particularly how much. That’s no easy task, and in fact, it may be impossible under the current system.

In an attempt to protect the escapement goal, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down king fishing in July, as it has done in summers when fish returns looked bleak, including last year. An optimum escapement figure ensures the quality and quantity of returns for all anglers, including the commercial guys, sport fishers and those relying on subsistence.

A state judge last week ruled in favor of Fish and Game in a proceeding that included a setnetters group, citing that biologists with the department are doing an adequate job of traversing the gradient that is salmon management on the Kenai Peninsula. The netters had focused on the argument that Fish and Game’s projections were far too conservative in the management process, meaning fishing closures were enacted on bad science and it was going to hit their incomes hard. Their focus is millions of returning sockeyes, but larger kings aren’t immune to their nets, which don’t discern between varying species.

The judge backed the closures, writing that it would be a large gamble to bet on the late run of fish exceeding the escapement figure. The shutdown, he wrote, was necessary because the impact of not meeting the goal would be much more destructive in the long term than the short-term hit associated with anglers of all varieties being shut out of fishing opportunities.

While scientific approaches are used to enact fisheries practices in Alaska and elsewhere, there are numerous theories swirling around as to why certain policies or agendas are followed – with many more likely to surface. Here’s a sampling of explanations that have been offered on the Kenai salmon issue, from all sides and from all points of view, and in no particular order:

  • Setnetters and trawlers have been too good at slaying kings when they’re trying to cash in on the sockeye prize that numbers in the millions of fish in the Cook Inlet alone, killing fish that were unlucky enough to get trapped.
  • Professional sport-fishing guides also have been too good at killing the gargantuan targets that nonresident anglers ante up to fight, essentially diminishing the best breeding stocks by overcapitalizing on big fish that the everyman angler can’t access.
  • High bacteria levels left in the wake of sport anglers and bank erosion from thousands of anglers stepping in or near the Kenai have damaged king spawning beds and associated areas, effectively wiping out classes of fish that face vast obstacles in returning to their native waters.
  • Overall ocean health issues have been detrimental to fish that begin their life in freshwater before heading into saltwater to mature, cutting into stocks that are fragile from the start and making it much more difficult to quickly bounce back after bad returns.
  • There really is no issue and past counts, even recent ones, show that escapement goals are being met, while the facts and timing of salmon runs have been misunderstood, meaning that closures aren’t actually necessary and this is simply a blip on the long-term radar.

Through Aug. 1, about 13,500 late-run kings were counted on the Kenai, less than the more than 18,000 counted through the same day last year, according to Fish and Game sonar data. The low end of the agency’s king escapement figure is 15,000. The cumulative late-run Kenai king count through Aug. 10 last year was 25,587, which was well above the escapement objective in place. The counts on the same day in 2011 and 2010 were 26,928 and 24,294, respectively. In that regard, the figures back up the science that the fish stocks aren’t in danger, according to fisheries biologist estimates.

By comparison, the late sockeye run tally was about 1.27 million fish through July, which actually was down from 1.35 million at the same time a year ago. The late escapement on sockeyes, which easily has been exceeded recently, was increased from 700,000 to 1.2 million after a new sonar approach was approved, which brings a whole other set of complaints.

When it comes to sockeyes, it’s all about timing, and the late run in mid-July again was nothing short of amazing. In a word, the red fishing was outstanding, but the window was short – as in 72 hours made the sport season. The count showed that about 9,000 reds passed the side-scan sonar up the river July 13. Three days later, the daily figure ballooned astronomically to 246,000, followed by 214,000 and nearly 118,000 the next two days. There’s no telling why the fish decide to migrate en masse at a specific time, but when they do, the angling can only be described as a rodeo. Seemingly everyone in the state – both resident and nonresident – migrates with the fish to the hamlets of Soldotna, Kenai and Cooper Landing for roughly two weeks, putting all other business on hold.

In that regard, the economic impact of the king salmon issue is larger and more far-reaching than what it may seem on the surface. The overall Kenai Peninsula salmon fishery is valued in the hundreds of millions of dollars, and in previous good seasons local entrepreneurs were able to reap the rewards of a king season that lasted nearly two months. With diminished king prospects comes reduced financial stimulation for the region in many regards.

Alaska is tied to its salmon – good and bad – but it’s a fishery that dwarfs anything else in the Lower 48. Through July, the statewide salmon harvest estimate was 98 million fish, more than half of that pinks (humpbacks), according to state figures. With an influx of silvers (cohos) timed to arrive in various locales around the state, that massive figure only will rise.

There’s a saying that in Alaska you don’t go fishing, you go catching. As a sport angler lucky enough to hook all five Pacific salmon species (king, red, silver, pink and chum), I sincerely hope that civility prevails as numerous groups continue to fight for their piece of the fish pie. Hunters and anglers always have been the best conservationists. Don’t lose sight of that now, especially when discussing an astounding resource that is much too important to lose for any reason.

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Will Leschper is founder of The Texas Outdoor Digest. He has been recognized for Excellence in Craft by the Outdoor Writers Association of America and the Texas Outdoor Writers Association. He is Conservation Editor of Texas Fish & Game Magazine and is a regular contributor to the Journal of the Texas Trophy Hunters, in addition to writing for plenty of of now-defunct publications.

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