By Patrice Kohl
As high tide swelled the lower Ninilchik River on Sunday afternoon, hopeful fishermen crowded the riverbed below Ninilchik village, patiently executing one fly rod cast after another. By the time the tide peaked, many fishermen had been casting for more than an hour. But during what should have been a prime fishing hour, no one hooked a fish. And as the tide began to turn, the fishermen’s morale began to sink along with the water level.
Not everyone fishing the Ninilchik on Sunday afternoon returned empty-handed, but everyone seemed to agree that so far this year the area’s king returns had been bleak. John O’Brien, of Nikiski, caught a Ninilchik king salmon after high tide Sunday, but said that for the amount of time fishermen were putting in on the lower rivers, they were catching considerably fewer kings than in the past.
Among lower-peninsula rivers, fishermen have witnessed a particularly sharp drop in king salmon returning to the Anchor River. The Anchor has fostered a popular spring king fishery after strong runs in recent years, but the fishery came to an abrupt halt this year after the river was closed to fishing Saturday to protect an unexpectedly small king return. As of Friday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had counted just 376 kings at its Anchor River weir, compared to 1,708 by the same date in 2008 and 4,417 in 2007.
Biologists worry the factors responsible for the poor return of Anchor River kings may not have originated in the river.
“We’ve had high returns on the Anchor River (in past years) that don’t really explain why there would be such low runs now,” said Nicky Szarzi, lower Kenai Peninsula Fish and Game management biologist. “It seems like they are low in this area and possibly elsewhere. Even our stocked returns aren’t very good this year, so we’re thinking that there is some marine survival issue.”
Typically, low returns are localized and can be traced to survival disruptions that occurred before the salmon left the river to feed in the ocean. But shortages of the forage fishes that kings feed on in the ocean and changes in normal ocean water temperatures can lower survival rates of king salmon for many rivers in an entire region.
Robert Begich, upper Kenai Peninsula Fish and Game management biologist, said that, so far, all of the kings in Cook Inlet appear to be returning in below-average numbers. The Anchor and Deshka rivers are hurting the worst, but the Kenai and Kasilof rivers also appear to be running low. Biologists say all of the rivers in Cook Inlet appear to be having below-average years.
The Kenai River has an average return of around 16,000 to 17,000 early kings, and Fish and Game forecasted approximately 16,500 early kings would return this year. But now that the department has factored in the low number of returning Kenai kings so far this year, it is now projecting a return of about 10,000. As of Sunday, the Kenai River sonar counter detected 3,723 kings, compared to an average of 4,806 kings by the same date the last three years.
Although there is no sonar or weir count tracking the number of kings escaping up the Kasilof this time of year, a Fish and Game creel census has found below-average catch rates among fishermen catching kings on the Kasilof.
The low king runs were a popular topic of conversation among locals eating lunch at the Boardwalk Café near the mouth of the Ninilchik River on Sunday. Some worried the drop in returns might be due to factors that could reach far into the future.
“Someone said global warming and I said, ‘Oh God, I hope not,’” said Lori Garrison of Ninilchik while eating lunch with her son.
Biologists, however, say not all hope is lost for this year’s king runs. Tim McKinley, supervisor for the sportfish division of Fish and Game in Soldotna, said that although things may look bleak so far, it is likely too early to raise alarms. He warned against taking a Chicken Little view of the situation.
“We’re not sure if this is a problem yet. Three days after your article comes out the sky may be up again,” McKinley said. “You always have to back up and say, ‘It’s not the end of the season yet.’ It’s not uncommon for things to turn around quickly. … All of these rivers have a lot more fish to come.”