By Jenny Neyman
The Kenai River sonar program tasked with counting king salmon is an evolving science not unlike the Kenai River itself, with twists, turns, snags and murkiness along the way to better clarity. The good news is that, with continued biological research, data analysis and the implementation of improved technology, sonar scientists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game are confident they now have the best data ever produced on Kenai River king salmon abundance. The bad news, however, is the new-and-improved data shows that chinook abundance is and has been lower than previously thought.
The estimate of late-run kings coming into the river — 9,082 as of July 26 — is so far below the minimum escapement goal of 17,800 fish that fishery managers decided to enact drastic, unprecedented measures as of July 19. Those
measures are closing the river to all sportfishing for kings, banning retention of kings in the dip-net fishery, and closing down the commercial set-net fishery for sockeye along the east side of Cook Inlet to prevent Kenai- and Kasilof-bound kings from getting caught in the gillnets targeting the large run of sockeyes which also is heading into the rivers.
The management decisions spawned from the king-return estimate, shaping up to be the worst return on record, are having a disastrous effect locally, particularly economically — to tackle shops, outfitters and other fishing-related merchants, to sportfishing guides who would be taking clients to fish for kings in July, to other businesses that would get a boost from that tourism, and to the set-netters who have lost their chance at earning their livelihood this summer. With so many repercussions from the shutdown of both sportfishing for kings and east side set netting for sockeye, it’s little wonder people are voicing concerns about the efficacy of the management decisions and the validity of the sonar numbers on which they are based.
But sonar scientists firmly support the accuracy of the counts produced with the new, advanced technology in use at the king sonar site. Just because there has been a change in the king sonar program this year doesn’t mean the run estimate is flawed, said Steve Fleischman, a fishery scientist who analyzes the sonar data.
“I think there’s this impression out there that we’re kind of running by the seat of our pants, when in fact we know far more than we ever did before. We have far more information about what’s really going on out there. And it gets better every day because we learn more and more as we collect more data and as we make comparisons. The unfortunate part is that this is all happening during a downturn in the stock,” Fleischman said. “You could look at both sides of the coin there, it’s a good thing that we’re getting very good information at this point, because now is a very important time to have good information. We don’t want to be making the wrong decisions at this point. We don’t want to be incorrectly liberalizing or allowing the fishery to continue when the runs are very small like this.”