By Kevin Delaney
The phrase “Perfect Storm” comes from a movie of the same name where a hardened commercial fishing captain experiences the best catches of prized fish and a killer storm on the same trip. The vessel, crew and catch are all lost in the storm. The fisheries staff of KRSA began using the phrase prior to and during the February/March 2011 meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries to describe a scenario that we felt was very possible.
That scenario is comprised of a dangerously low return of late-run king salmon bound back to the Kenai River, unknown abundance of Kasilof king salmon, unknown abundance of Susitna sockeye salmon, unknown abundance of coho and very large return of sockeye salmon bound back to the Kenai River. Add in to this dangerous mix the fact that no one, including the department, has much confidence in our ability to estimate the abundance of late-run king salmon.
KRSA staff had two meetings with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game personnel prior to the 2011 season, one with the commissioner and directors and one with regional and area staff. At each meeting we asked what course of action the department would implement should this “perfect storm” be realized. ADF&G staff response was that they would adhere to the management plans until such time that it was no longer possible and then they would use the commissioner’s authority to manage for established goals, specifically the sonar goal for Kenai sockeye. They were silent on what that might mean for late-run king salmon or coho.
Well, it is now July 22, 2011 and the “perfect storm” scenario is being realized in real time. Today, after the daily strategy meeting held by department managers, they will issue an emergency order prohibiting the use of bait in the sport fishery for late-run king salmon in the Kenai River effective 12:01 am Monday July 25. At the same time, managers will announce that the total return of sockeye to the Kenai River will likely be in the range of 6-7 million fish in contrast to the pre-season forecast of 3.9 million. Anything greater than 4.6 million and the gloves come off, so to speak, causing commercial fish managers to “cry havoc” and go all out to stop the run from entering the river. That means both the Tuesday and Friday windows (closures of the set net fishery to allow fish to enter the Kenai River) go away and killing the last sockeye trumps any effort to put kings and cohos into the river. To make matters worse. the king salmon run also appears to be tailing off, prompting managers to face daily the possibility of further restriction, even closure of the sport fishery and the coho run is not looking all that great.
Unless the estimate of abundance for king salmon improves dramatically and fast the sport fishery for late-run king salmon in the Kenai River will be face a bait restriction and/or catch and release/trophy restrictions for certain and the commercial nets will be in the water continuously for the remainder of the sockeye run to the Kenai.
If the king salmon run tails off at a rate worse than currently anticipated then things get really interesting. If sport fish managers assess that the final spawning number of kings salmon will be less than 17,800 fish then they are obligated by the management plan to close the sport fishery completely and commercial fish managers are instructed to close the set net fishery at the same time. If we get to that point, potentially next Tuesday or Wednesday, it will then become a Commissioner’s call since the codified management plans will no longer provide enough specific instruction. Will protection of king salmon trump sockeye harvest or will the uncertainty caused by a marginal sonar counter create enough ambiguity for the sockeye heyday to continue? And, where are the coho?
We will continue to provide updates daily and through the day if necessary as this season plays out. All updates will be posted at the Kenai River Sportfishing Association website.
Kevin Delaney is a Kenia River Sportfishing Association consultant and the former director of the Division of Sportfishing for the State of Alaska.
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