By Jenny Neyman
There was no lack of data, analysis, statistical models, facts, figures and hypotheses presented at the second meeting of the Upper Cook Inlet Task Force on Jan. 14 at the Challenger Learning Center of Alaska in Kenai.
But for the six hours of answers and information, the main question driving the creation and effort of the task force remains unanswered: If the 2013 Kenai River king and sockeye runs shape up similarly to the 2012 returns, how can the disastrous fishing season that unfolded last year be avoided in the coming one?
While nothing has been settled yet, an answer is coming closer. Work this meeting was advanced by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s recent release of its new late-run Kenai River king salmon escapement goal, recommending 15,000 to 30,000 fish be spared from hooks and nets to get upriver to spawn.
The report still is in a draft form undergoing peer review and the revision process, and it’s only an interim figure to be used until the goal comes up for review and revision to the Alaska Board of Game in 2014, in accordance with its regular three-year cycle.
But it represents progress, especially in times of low abundance of kings, as has been the trend in recent years, said Robert Clark, chief fisheries scientist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, who gave a presentation on the updated escapement recommendation.
“We need to manage carefully because runs are going to be small in the near term — they just are, it’s a certainly. But this analysis is a breakthrough from our old assessment. Now I think we have a way forward,” he said.
The new goal was developed using king count estimates generated with DIDSON sonar technology, seen as far more accurate than the previously used target-strength estimates produced by split-beam sonar technology. Split beam has been shown to confuse smaller kings with sockeyes, especially when both fish are mixed together in the river. The previous goal range of 17,500 to 35,000 fish was developed using the old sonar estimates. The department switched to using DIDSON technology exclusively at the king sonar site at mile 8.6 last year, but was still using the old escapement goal. Now a DIDSON-based escapement will be tracked with DIDSON sonar.
Keeping better count of the fish is only part of the battle. Deciding how to manage fisheries is the other.
“This 15,000 is our best guess that balances the risk of the fisheries — keeping fisheries viable and going — and balancing that against the risk to the stock in terms of overfishing,” Clark said.
That balancing act was particularly difficult under a perfect storm of factors contributing to the maelstrom that became the 2012 Kenai River fishing season. A low early run of Kenai kings in June and poor returns of kings elsewhere in the state raised a red flag that the Kenai late run of kings might also be low. Further supporting that concern was a late arrival of the late run. Meanwhile, a robust return of sockeyes streamed into the river while kings were merely trickling in.
The result was restrictions in the sport and personal-use fisheries on retention of kings, then an all-out in-river closure on king fishing. That triggered a closure of the area’s commercial set-net fishery for sockeye, in order to prevent kings from getting caught in the commercial nets. When it became clear that kings were late more than nonexistent, governing management didn’t allow for creative solutions to address the unusual situation. Save for a few, mostly unproductive openings, the set-netters lost their season, sport fishermen lost much of their Kenai king fishing season and more sockeye than were desired made it upriver, all to protect kings that ended up making escapement.
“The problem with last year really wasn’t abundance, it was how the run showed up, and a lot of it showed up late. In those situations you try to do as a good a job as you can projecting those kinds of problems,” Clark said.