Catch kings if you can — Fish and Game levies restrictions, changes reporting on early run info

By Jenny Neyman

Redoubt Reporter

To call up the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s informational recording giving the sonar count estimates of salmon returning to Cook Inlet rivers, or to look at the counts printed in the Peninsula Clarion newspaper, could give the impression that king salmon fishing has been hot and heavy in the Kenai River.

As of Friday, the early run king count in the Kenai was reported as a robust cumulative total of 9,172, which is thousands of fish ahead of the average estimate for this time of year.

Fish on, right?

Wrong — both the number and the impression it gives that fishing is good. Despite the rosy outlook such a high sonar estimate connotates, king fishing has been slow on the Kenai this spring.

“A friend on the river fished two days on the weekend. He fished hard and only saw one fish caught, and it was only about 10 pounds. It was just a desert out there. Nobody was catching anything, so it’s really poor,” said Dwight Kramer, a private angler and head of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition.

The run has been so poor, in fact, that Fish and Game imposed fishing restrictions Monday, which are in place today through July 14 covering the area from the Fish and Game regulatory marker 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 River upstream to the northernmost edge of the Sterling Highway Bridge. Only kings less than 20 inches or more than 55 inches may be kept. Any kings between 20 and 55 inches must be released without removing them from the water. Bait is not allowed from today through July 14 in the restricted area noted above, but bait will be allowed starting Friday downstream of the Fish and Game regulatory marker near Slikok Creek.

Yet if the sonar estimate on the recording and in the paper is to be believed, the Kenai king run not only met, but also exceeded the escapement goal as of Friday.

“Obviously they’re not using that number, because otherwise they’d be liberalizing the fishery,” Kramer said. “It just seems to me like they can do a better job of reporting numbers closer to the values they’re using for management decisions. The public would be more well-informed about why the fisheries get managed the way they get managed.”

The sonar estimate is wrong, biased high due to a number of factors. Biologists know it’s wrong and aren’t basing fishery management decisions solely on it. On Friday, if fishermen looked a little further, they would have known the number was wrong, too. Anyone checking out the early run Kenai king summary posted on Fish and Game’s website Friday and scrolling down to the text narrative at the bottom of the page would have seen the following statement:

“Three of the four indices of early run king salmon strength continue to be the third lowest of years 2002-present. The ELSD sonar estimate of king salmon passing the sonar site on June 23 was 150 for a season total passage estimate of 9,172 king salmon. Using a combination of all indices, the department feels the total ELSD passage estimate is substantially higher than the actual number of king salmon to have passed the sonar station.”

The first graph at the top of the page shows the ELSD estimate — echo length standard deviation — that uses data from the split-beam sonar at mile 8.6 in the Kenai to generate an estimated number of kings in the river. It shows the cumulative 2011 estimate to be far exceeding both the estimate for this time last year and for the 2002-2010 average. But below that are three other graphs showing other indicators Fish and Game uses to gauge the strength of the run (see side bar below), all of which show the run as being significantly lower than the 2002-2010 average. Managers use a combination of factors to get an overall estimation of the strength of the run.

“The analogy I use is if you talk about economic indicators, or the Dow Jones Industrial Average, you’ve got the NASDAQ, S&P and two bond indicators. If three of them are good and one’s bad, the Dow is probably doing pretty good or going up. If three of them are not good or below average, the Dow’s probably flat or not doing so well,” said Robert Begich, area manager of sport fisheries for Fish and Game.

“We look at that (ELSD sonar) number and then we look at the other tools that we have and see where they’re at relative to past years and how they’re performing. You get this body of evidence that says, ‘OK, that number is probably biased high because of species issues or where the fish are passing and the size of the fish passing the sonar,’ and that’s all part of it,” he said.

This isn’t the first year the ELSD sonar estimate has gone awry. Last year the number was skewed high, as well, likely owing to much the same conditions that are fooling the count this year — a larger proportion of smaller kings mixed in with lots of sockeye salmon all mixed together the water channel.

As with last year, Fish and Game used its other indicators to determine the ELSD sonar estimate was biased high, the king run was low and managed the fishery conservatively as a result. Measurement tools and the management approach hasn’t changed this year, but Fish and Game is making more of an effort to better explain to the public how it measures run strength in managing the fishery. Last year, the run summaries were much more brief, giving an overview of the estimated run strength, rather than showing results for each of the different measurement tools. Sonar numbers also were updated every day last year, even though such frequency required a compromise in accuracy, because there’s a lag time between the raw ELSD count being produced and that number being revised with other factors taken into account. This year they’re only updated twice a week to offer a more accurate representation. There’s also a new website being developed with information about the sonar program, at www.AlaskaFisheriesSonar.org.

The effort is a work in progress, and Begich said input is appreciated.

“I think, overall, my impression in talking to people is that they like the new format because it gives them more than just the sonar number. They also have comparative information to compare past years and they can judge for themselves,” he said.

Kramer said the run summary Web page with the different run-strength indicator graphs does do a good job of showing the overall picture of the run, so people understand that the ELSD sonar number is inflated.

“Their website is real good, it reports all the values and people can kind of deduct from that,” he said.

The problem is — or was, before a change this week — that only the ELSD sonar number was listed in the Clarion and on the phone recording, with no explanation that the count is known to be inaccurately high. If people didn’t know to go to the website, they wouldn’t have known that the count was wrong.

“The people that look at the media and call up their phone deal and get those numbers, they’re being misled. Probably 90 percent of those people don’t understand the other functions that are going into this, the total picture that they base their management decision on,” Kramer said.

A miscommunication like that creates room for misunderstanding, at best, or fodder for the rumor mill, at worst, giving credence to theories that the sonar count is purposely inflated in order to boost tourism or support an argument that the fishery should be liberalized, rather than restricted. If fishermen and fishery managers were on the same page, those miscommunications would be lessened.

“To me, it’s disingenuous to report to the public an inflated figure knowing that they have a different formula they’re using,” Kramer said. “To report this inflated number, whether it’s to attract tourism or sell licenses or I don’t know what. I can’t figure it out why they would do that. It seems to me like it would put them in a tight spot trying to justify that figure.”

To address those concerns, as of Sunday the sonar count listed in the Clarion now comes with a disclaimer — “Using a combination of all of the indices it uses to evaluate the king salmon run, the department feels the total ELSD sonar estimate is substantially higher than the actual number of king salmon to have passed the sonar station. For more on what the other indicies suggest about the strength of the king salmon run please visit ADF&G’s fish count database http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/sf/FishCounts/”

Another option would be to just stop reporting the ELSD sonar number, since it’s known to be inaccurate. But that would generate pushback from the public, as well, Begich said. In public meetings held last year to explain Fish and Game’s sonar program, especially its plans to switch to a new, DIDSON sonar technology in the future that’s expected to produce a more-accurate king count in the Kenai, the sentiment was that fishermen still want to see a sonar estimate number.

“We discussed with the public about not putting out a sonar number, but it’s something that’s difficult to get away from,” Begich said. “Those numbers have frequently and almost always been adjusted post season, but it’s what we have and it’s what we can give to people in real time. If we weren’t to post it a lot of people clamor for something so it’s hard not to put it out.”

The solution coming into this fishing season was to still release the ELSD number, even if it ended up being biased high, and show the results from the three other run-strength indicators in the run summaries.

“We decided that the best approach would be to show them all the tools, and this is with public, stakeholder input. Ultimately people did want to see a number so we went with still putting out a sonar number. Whether that’s right or wrong I don’t know. It’s a public perception issue that we’re working with the best we can,” Begich said.

After concerns about just the ELSD number being listed in the media and on the recording, Fish and Game is now providing the disclaimer, as well. And if there are further changes people would like made to enhance communication and understanding, Begich said he’s all ears.

“If there’s something that folks want us to say or make more clear, the recommendations are welcome because this thing is going to evolve as it goes along in the future,” he said. “The main thing is if they have questions, comments or concerns, send an email or give us a call.”

For more information on problems with the ELSD sonar technology and efforts to address those challenges, see the next edition of the Redoubt Reporter.

Counting on technology…

On a daily basis the Kenai king sonar site at mile 8.6 can only report a very preliminary estimate of fish passage that changes as fisheries biologists receive additional data. When all of the data comes in, the preliminary estimate may change only a little, or it might change a lot.

The strength of Kenai king runs is gauged using many pieces of information, including data collected using sonar and nonsonar tools. In particular, fisheries managers take a hard look at four pieces of information — the rates at which sportfishermen and the sonar site’s test gillnet project are catching kings, and two estimates generated based on sonar and test gillnet data.

The two estimates include an estimate generated using sonar-detection techniques meant to account for large kings and a sonar estimate adjusted to account for large and small kings based on the proportion of large kings, small kings and sockeye caught by the site’s test gillnet project over a period of three days. None of these pieces of information can stand on its own, and an estimate accounting for all of them requires three days to mature.

— Information from Patrice Kohl,

Alaska Department of Fish and Game

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