by Ricky Gease
As the hours of daylight ascend and temperatures rise, Alaska’s rivers are opening back up to welcome home returning salmon. Sport and personal-use anglers are readying their gear in anticipation of the summer fishing season. While the preseason forecast for sockeye salmon is robust for the Kenai River, projections for Kenai kings are one of the lowest on record for both the early and late runs.
Preseason projections for king salmon returns elsewhere are also tracking poorly, in line with the recent years of historic low abundances across the state. To deal with the state’s continuing crisis in king salmon management, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has pronounced a wide ranging series of preseason, precautionary restrictions and closures for king salmon fisheries across the state.
On the Yukon River, the projection for Chinook continues to be poor to below average, with expected necessary harvest reductions in the subsistence fishery and no anticipation of a commercial fishing opening.
In Southeast Alaska, the abundance index of this year Chinook salmon decreased 20 percent from 2012, triggering reductions in all user and gear groups that harvest kings.
On the Copper River, the preseason forecast for Chinook salmon is 33 percent below the 14-year average (1999-2012). If realized, it will be the fifth-smallest return since 1980.
In Bristol Bay, because of limited information and low abundance of king salmon over the past five years, commercial fishing restrictions have been implemented for 2013. These include gear and fishing time for each district.
In Kodiak, recent years of poor productivity warrant conservative management approaches, with non-retention in the Karluk River and reduced bag, possession and annual limits in the Ayakulik River king sport fisheries.
In Lower Cook Inlet, gear, time, bag, possession and annual limit restrictions have been announced for the king salmon sport fisheries on the Anchor, Deep Creek, and Ninilchik rivers, as well as for the marine recreational fishery from Ninilchik south to Bluff Point.
In the northern district of Upper Cook Inlet, king salmon fishery restrictions for the sport fisheries have been put in place for the Little Su and Susitna River drainage, while in the commercial fisheries time (50 percent reduction) and area restrictions were announced.
In the central district of Upper Cook Inlet, bag and possession limits for king salmon on the Kasilof River are closed to retention of wild fish and reduced to one hatchery-produced king.
While the forecast for Kenai River king salmon (early and late runs) is projected at historic lows, ADFG has yet to make any announcement on how it plans to manage either fishery this year.
As a fishery conservation organization, Kenai River Sportfishing Association believes fish come first, and we support the proactive, preseason and precautionary actions taken by ADFG. When it comes to fishery management strategies, we have repeatedly advocated for similar proactive, precautionary measures, as have been announced for other watersheds across the state.
KRSA believes the best approach is to start the fishing season for Kenai kings in a conservation harvest mode and then, if in-season returns show a harvestable surplus is available, liberalize the fishery. Such an approach can be considered a step-up approach, in contrast to a step-down approach, which starts the season with liberal harvest strategies and puts on the brakes if low escapement projections persist into the run.
How ADFG chooses to manage late-run Kenai king salmon this season will be one of the most scrutinized and watched issues in 2013. There are in the unenviable position of having to pick winners and losers, not just among user groups, but also for fish.
The lowest escapement on record for late-run Kenai kings is 16,000 in 2010. With no return data yet from that brood year, ADFG has no biological data to know whether just squeaking above the new minimum goal is wise or not. The lowest escapement for which there is brood year data is 26,000 fish in 1989; more than two decades ago when ocean productivity was altogether different.
KRSA believes the most prudent approach for fisheries management of Kenai kings in 2013 is to act in a conservative manner in both the early and late runs, as ADFG has chosen to do in the face of low abundance of king salmon throughout the state. We believe a conservative start with harvest restrictions in place for all user groups is most likely to be successful in providing more fishing opportunity over the course of the season.
Then, as escapement data comes in during the late-run in July, maintain a precautionary zone of paired restrictions for all users group if escapements in real fish are projected less than 20,000 fish, and a step-up strategy to liberalize harvests when escapement projections rise above 20,000.
KRSA will keep its membership up to date on the 2013 fishing season on Facebook, the fish blog, e-newsletters and action alerts.
Ricky Gease is the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
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