By Jenny Neyman
Special to the Tribune
Rather than that being the hopeful sound of a lure hitting the water, it more represents the sinking feeling among anglers that the king salmon fishing season on the Kenai River is already off to a poor start, before it even opens Thursday. On May 9, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced restrictions to catch-and-release and trophy fishing only in the Kenai.
According to the department, the restrictions are being put in place to conserve the early run and help it meet its Board of Fisheries-mandated optimal escapement goal of 5,300 to 9,000 fish. The preseason forecast for the early run estimates a total of about 5,300 fish, which would put it on par with the lowest runs measured in 28 years — similar in abundance to the scant 2012 early run, on which fishing was closed midseason last year. The estimate of 5,300 fish is less than half the size of the average run strength from 1986 to 2012 of 14,000 fish.
“There is little indication to date of a change in the low Chinook production trend observed statewide. It is therefore prudent to start the early run fishery as catch-and-release until in-season data indicates some harvest can be allowed or, alternatively, further restriction is necessary to meet the (optimum escapement goal),” according to the emergency order issued May 9.
While bad news such as this is never welcome to anglers, it’s even less welcome, particularly to fishing guides, coming as it did just a week before the season opens.
“I think they should have announced it a lot earlier and not put the guide component in a bind like they did. They announced it the same week the fishery opens — that’s crazy. I just think it was handled poorly,” said Dwight Kramer, chair of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition.
He said he supports the department’s decision to enact restrictions, given that the department’s early run management plan calls for an optimum escapement goal of at least 5,300 fish, and the forecast is predicting only 5,300 fish.
“I’m all for conservation of the early run,” Kramer said. “They were already at the minimum escapement goal in the forecast before any harvest. So I think they were stuck — they had to do this.”
But Kramer questions why the department waited so long to announce the restrictions. The early run forecast was released April 17.
“That’s when they should have done it,” he said.
The fish aren’t back yet and DIDSON sonar sites used to estimate passage of kings in the river don’t start operating until May 15, so there hasn’t been any in-season data to further inform the preseason run strength estimate. Kramer asks why the department did not make the call in April and let people plan accordingly.
“Nothing really changed, and it puts the guides in a bind. They all have clientele coming and now they have to go back and tell everybody it’s catch and release and maybe closure if things don’t get better,” Kramer said.
The department issued a spate of restrictions on other area streams April 18, including the Kasilof, Anchor, Deep Creek and Ninilchik rivers, and marine waters south of the mouth of the Ninilchik.
“When those restrictions came out in April with everybody being restricted except the Kenai, that seemed kind of fishy to begin with, especially when we’re forecasted to be at the minimum escapement,” Kramer said. “They should have announced it then.”
Guides are now having to scramble to contact clients who were booked for trips in the early part of the early run and let them know their chances of retaining a Kenai king are now that much slimmer.
“With this in place I would say we’re definitely going to feel it. I’ve had people already cancel,” said Steve McClure, president of the Kenai Professional Guides Association and operator of McClure’s Guide Service.
He said that he and his fellow guides understand and support the need for conservation.
“We understand trying to put the resource first and the fish first — we got it,” he said. “Of course we’re worried about the river, of course we’re worried about the forecast. The whole state seems like we have a downward trend of kings throughout the area. And it’s very troubling.”
But he also believes in maintaining reasonable opportunities to harvest fish and a progressive approach to restrictions informed by in-season data. After all, he said, though the Kenai’s king runs have certainly been lower than average in recent years, they haven’t been struggling as much as other streams in the region.
“When you focus that on the Kenai, we’re probably one of the bright spots, as crazy as it sounds. But we’ve been meeting minimum escapements. And I know we’ve got some serious restrictions on both user groups (commercial sockeye set-net fishermen and sport fishermen) but there are a lot of areas of the state that have the same types of restrictions that didn’t make their minimum escapements,” McClure said.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association issued a statement Monday also questioning the department’s late announcement of the catch-and-release restriction, but overall sided with the conservative management approach.
“KRSA finds it extremely unfortunate that production of king salmon is historically low throughout Alaska. As a fishery conservation organization that advocates strongly for the health of the resource and the economic values that our fisheries contribute, we understand and express sincere empathy to our members and the many others in the region whose businesses depend heavily on participation in sport fishing for king salmon,” according to the KRSA statement.
McClure has no problem with conservation when warranted, he said. But he doesn’t like how this step was taken. He said he doesn’t remember another instance of the department jumping to a catch-and-release restriction for the early run based solely on the preseason forecast. Usually the department waits until the quarter point of the run has returned, around about the end of the first week in June, to assess sonar counts and all its other run strength indices — such as creel surveys and net-apportioned estimates — before taking a step like going to catch-and-release.
“At that point assess the run and either leave it the same, or maybe take further restrictions, or maybe even liberalize it depending on what they’re actually seeing in the run,” McClure said.
Even more frustrating, he said, is that local fishery managers said they were intending to approach the run as usual this year to start out with their usual tools in play — such as the slot limit, allowing only a single hook with no bait and a one-fish bag limit.
“The department said that with all the restrictions we have in place we feel like we have the tools necessary to slow you guys down. And there are other step-down things they could do, like close the river above a certain point, or maybe start talking about days and hours. But they felt like the tools they had in place at this time were enough,” McClure said.
“So that information is what we’ve been relaying to our clients and the businesses around town, and all of a sudden at this time of the year before one fish has come in, before the sonar even goes in, we get an EO announcement that they’re shutting it down,” he said.
It feels like a bait and switch, both from the department, and now from him to his clients.
“You kind of feel like the bad guy because people you were talking to who were worried about it, you told them, ‘The department is saying they can’t make a call until the 25th percentile of the run is in, so if you really want to harvest a fish you have to come in the first part of June, end of May.’ It kind of makes us look like we weren’t being honest with them,” McClure said.
Robert Begich, Kenai area sportfish biologist, said that his staff recommendation for managing the run was to start by regulation, as usual, but that the decision recently changed.
“We recommend in-season management actions. They originate at the local level and they’re approved (or not) by headquarters staff, so that’s the way things flow,” Begich said. “The plan was to go with standard regulations. The staff recommendation on how to start the season changed the last few days (before the announcement).”
The change is due to concern over the escapement, given the low forecast.
“Last year we started with normal fishing regulations and we failed to achieve the goal so the discussion becomes that’s not a good strategy to move into a season if we’re anticipating a run of the same size,” he said.
McClure said he wished that the decision had been made and announced sooner.
“It’s hard because on one hand you’re struggling with, ‘What’s the best thing for the river, what’s the best thing for the resource?’ And the other hand the managers are telling us, ‘We’re OK with this.’ Then all of a sudden to get the managers’ boss to step in and say, ‘That’s not what we’re going do,’ is really troubling,” McClure said.
The department states that it will assess the run with all its usual indices, and if run strength looks better than predicted it could loosen fishing restrictions. That might be great for private anglers, who can get out when the fishing’s good, but it doesn’t do guides much good when trips are booked in advance. Some clients will come anyway and will want to fish the Kenai even with the restrictions. Others will get booked for other trips, such as saltwater excursions. And once those plans are made they can’t be undone on the spur of the moment if Fish and Game suddenly lifts restrictions on the Kenai.
“If you’re going to set up an extra halibut trip you can’t go back later and say, ‘You know what? I’m going to go fishing the Kenai today after all,’” McClure said.
For guides, this just adds to the ripple effect that’s been building in recent years, with booking suffering from a depressed national economy made worse with the fishing closures enacted last season, McClure said.
“Last year with the emergency closures in the first run and the second run, it had a negative impact on the amount of people who wanted to come back this year. So you already have a smaller scale of people wanting to come back this year, and then you throw this on top of it. It’s like bad news spreads twice as fast as good news,” McClure said.
• From May 16 through June 30 from the Kenai River mouth upstream to Skilak Lake, and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai upstream to the Sterling Highway bridge, king salmon 20 inches or greater in length and less than 55 inches in length may not be possessed or retained, may not be removed from the water, and must be released immediately. Harvest of king salmon less than 20 inches or greater than 55 inches in length is still allowed.
• From July 1 to July 14 in the Kenai from Fish and Game regulatory markers approximately 300 yards downstream from the mouth of Slikok Creek upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai upstream to the Sterling Highway bridge, king salmon 20 inches or greater in length and less than 55 inches in length may not be possessed or retained, may not be removed from the water and must be released immediately. Harvest of king salmon less than 20 inches or greater than 55 inches in length is still allowed.
• Use of bait is not allowed in the Kenai River from the regulatory markers 300 yards downstream from the mouth of Slikok Creek upstream to the outlet of Skilak Lake, and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai to the Sterling Highway bridge.
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