Forecast for 2017 Upper Inlet sockeye run bleak at best

Still reeling from back-to-back increasingly poor seasons, Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishermen got more bad news: the commercial harvest forecast for 2017 is a paltry 1.7 million sockeye, and that is if it comes in as forecast. In 2016 the harvest was 26 percent below forecast.

The overall forecast is for a return of 4 million sockeye system-wide, 1.2 million fewer than the 20-year average, and the forecast for the Kenai River of 2.2 million sockeye is 1.4 million fish less than the 20 year average of a 3.6 million sockeye return.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game looked at age-0 fry rearing in Skilak and Kenai Lakes, which feed into the Kenai River, in fall of the parent year of 2013, and found an abundance of 9.5 million, compared to the 20-year average of 17.7 million fry.

Area management biologist Pat Shields said that the parent years for the run, 2012 and 2013, were at or near the upper level of escapement goals for the Kenai River, not over, although the escapement goals set by the Board of Fisheries are not necessarily based on maximum possible returns, according data provided by ADF&G.

Shields said that they measured the outgoing smolt for one of the parent years, “and we had a fair number of smolt going out; they just didn’t survive as well as they normally do.”

He added that those smolt were at or above average size and weight.

“Something is occurring out in the ocean environment that is not favoring survival, or at least to the average rate of survival.”

As far as management, it puts the fishery in the most conservative tier, which for the setnet fleet means that after July 8 there will only be 24 additional hours of fishing time per week beyond the 12 hours on Mondays and Thursdays, although the Kasilof section could get another 24 hours depending upon Kasilof run strength.

For the drift fleet, it means that there will be no Area 1 or Inlet-wide after July 16; all periods will be the expanded corridor.

However, if an in-season assessment determines that Kenai run strength will be above 2.3 million sockeye, the drift fleet would get one Area 1, below Kalgin Island, opening per week.

“If anyone wants some reason to be hopeful it’s that it is a forecast, and we can hope that more fish return than the forecast projects,” Shields said.

Cristy Fry can be reached at