Numbers look promising, but salmon managers still uncertain about run strength

A strong, early pulse of king salmon on southern and central Kenai Peninsula streams has runs off to a good start. But managers say it is still too early to tell if the Cook Inlet’s ailing king salmon runs will rally from the last few years of poor returns.

Thirteen days after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game began counting early run king salmon on the Kenai River, there are hundreds more fish estimated to have passed the sonar by the end of May than the last two years combined. On the Anchor River, there were more kings counted in the river by May 30 than any year since 2007.

But multiple years of poor king salmon returns have led to fishing restrictions on both rivers. The Kenai River has been closed to early run king salmon fishing for the past two years, while managers closed two weekends typically open to king salmon fishing on the Anchor River and restricted the area available to fishing on the remaining opening weekends.

“So far, the king numbers are better than they have been in the past several years,” said Homer-based Fish and Game Area Management Biologist Carol Kerkvliet on the Anchor River weir and sonar data. “We are still waiting for the run to develop.”

The strong numbers could be an indication of a good-sized run or the king salmon could be hitting the rivers early, said Soldotna-based Fish and Game area management biologist Robert Begich.

Run timing can have a profound effect on how managers choose to allow fishing. In 2012, uncharacteristically low numbers of king salmon passed the sonar on the Kenai River and managers eventually closed the river entirely to king salmon fishing when they were not projecting to make their goal. It was an unprecedented move at the time and it triggered a closure in the commercial setnet fishery on the east side of Cook Inlet. 

The year was so bad for commercial guides, sportfishing and tourism-related businesses and commercial fishermen in the area that the U.S. Department of Commerce declared it a fisheries disaster. Millions in disaster funding has been paid to Cook Inlet fishermen. Once the run was closed, steady numbers of fish continued to trickle into the river. After the season closed on July 31 and by the time the year ended, managers estimated that more than a quarter of the run had come in later than usual.

There are some indicators of run-timing this year, such as the catch sampling of king salmon in the popular marine recreation fishery in southern Cook Inlet. Begich said data coming from the that fishery, including the number of spawners being caught, indicates that Cook Inlet-bound fish are coming in earlier than normal.