Optimal escapement goal supported at advisory committee meeting

How many king salmon does it take to rebuild a run, and what restrictions should be in place to protect king salmon?

Those were questions central to most of the conversations of the Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee meeting Jan. 8 at the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, as the committee began discussion on Kenai River late-run king salmon and the State Department of Fish and Game’s recently published action plan for the stock.

The meeting was among a series of meetings by the local group to set recommendations on nearly 200 proposals to the State Board of Fisheries ahead of the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting scheduled for late next month.

Though Kenai/Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee meetings began in November, the group had delayed contentious king salmon conversations until the action plan could be published — the plan a response to a move by the board in October that named Kenai River late-run kings a stock of management concern.

The proposals tackled largely focused on regulations related to commercial fisheries. The group plans to talk sport fishing regulations at next week’s meeting.

As the committee began to dig into the plan last week, the central topic of conversation was the optimal escapement goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon, which the group supported broadly in a series of votes on proposals to the board.

According to background information in Fish and Game’s action plan, the optimal escapement goal was set at 15,000 to 30,000 “large” king salmon by the State Board of Fisheries in 2020, superseding a still-existing Department-set sustainable escapement goal of 13,500 to 27,000 large kings set in 2017, when the large qualifier was adopted. Large king salmon are those longer than 34 inches from their eye to their tail fork.

The failure of the king salmon run to meet the optimal escapement goal in 2023, both in preseason projections and in actual fish counted, motivated Fish and Game to issue emergency orders closing the sport fishery and the east side setnet fishery. The action plan says that the department recommended Kenai River late-run kings be named a stock of concern because of their chronic inability to meet goals despite management action.

Despite some dissenting voices, the group expressed support for the optimal escapement goal, and voted against supporting all but one proposal that would allow for commercial fishing opportunity below the goal.

Monte Roberts, who holds a sport fish guide seat on the committee, called the optimal escapement goal “the only way the in-river fishery is going to have a chance to fish again.”

Others — including Vice Chair Paul Shadura II and Todd Smith, who sits in a commercial setnet seat, pushed to see opportunity for commercial anglers below the goal.

Shadura pointed to the department’s review of escapement goals in 2023, which recommended “no change” in the lower, department-set sustainable escapement goal for the stock. He said that number is determined to maximize yield, and that the optimal escapement goal, as is, cuts out an entire fishery.

Committee Chair Mike Crawford said he supports the higher optimal escapement goal because it provides a “buffer” for the salmon above the lower bound of the sustainable escapement goal.

“This is not an exact science, this is very difficult,” he said. “We need to protect these fish.”

Colton Lipka, a commercial fishery area management biologist for the department, was present to provide contextual information for the committee. In response to questions from the committee members he said that the stock hasn’t met the optimal escapement goal since it was established in 2020, and that the department is continuing to use the “large” qualifier to more accurately count king salmon.

The committee opposed a proposal that would outright remove the optimal escapement goal with a vote of 10-3, as well as two other proposals by the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association that would allow fishing for the east side setnet fishery when the run is projected and counted below the optimal escapement goal.

All three proposals saw support from Smith, Shadura and Dyer VanDevere.

The only proposal to see support from the committee Monday was another by the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association that would allow fishing for the east side setnet fishery when the projected run is below the optimal escapement goal, but would institute a harvest cap of 200 large Kenai River late-run king salmon for both the Kasilof Section and the Kenai/East Foreland Sections. If harvest of large Kenai River king salmon exceeds that number at either section, it will be closed immediately by the commissioner, Proposal 80 reads.

The proposal saw support by a margin of 7 in favor and 6 opposed.

Roberts, who voted in opposition, said the limit of 200 — 400 total across the two areas described — is too many potentially dead king salmon. He further pointed to the recurring stance of the committee of opposing opportunity below the optimal escapement goal as being cause to reject the proposal — which would allow for fishing below even the sustainable escapement goal. The proposal as written would allow opportunity at a projected escapement as low as 11,750 Kenai River late-run king salmon.

Shadura, who voted in favor, said the commercial fisheries are “looking for relief” and said the proposal offered a chance to harvest sockeye with “accountable restrictions.” He conceded that perhaps the numbers needed “some fine-tuning.”

A chart included in the action plan shows harvest of large Kenai River late-run king salmon by user group. In 2022, the chart shows that 41 large kings were harvested in the east side setnet fishery. Roberts said the proposal is asking for four times as much without giving the in-river sport fishery anything.

“We’re looking for an opportunity to put nets in the water,” Smith said in support of the proposal. “We’ve got to find a way.”

The proposal also includes options for the department to institute gear limitations or limit fishing to within 600 feet from mean high tide.

The committee voted in opposition to two proposals by Travis Every that would allow limited opportunity for the east side setnet fishery below the optimal escapement goal; a proposal by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that would expand windows where commercial fishing is closed on the weekends; and another by the Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee that would repeal parts of the Kenai River Late-run King Salmon Management Plan describing paired restrictions, the optimal escapement goal, and language that says the department shall manage late-run kings primarily for sport use.

For more information about the committee or the boards process, visit adfg.alaska.gov and look under “Regulations.”

Reach reporter Jake Dye at jacob.dye@peninsulaclarion.com.