As Upper Cook Inlet fishermen prepare for the always-contentious Alaska Board of Fisheries meetings for the area starting Friday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has released a salmon forecast for both early and late run king salmon in the Kenai River, as well as Kenai River sockeye, that predicts a below-average run of both kinds of salmon.
The early run kings, which return from mid-May to early June, are expected to meet the escapement goal.
ADF&G has forecast a return of 4,794 large kings, defined as approximately 34 inches overall, for the early run, which is within the optimum escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 large fish, but well below the 1986-2019 average of 9,196 large fish.
Optimum escapement is defined by the BOF as the number of fish allowed to escape the fisheries and spawn that ensures sustainable runs and healthy returns for commercial, sport, subsistence, cost-recovery and personal use harvests. The 2020 early run king forecast is also slightly lower than the recent five-year average of 5,110 fish.
However, the 2019 early run king forecast was well below the actual return. That forecast was approximately 3,167 large fish in the 2019 early run, but ADF&G observed around 4,216 fish.
Fishery biologist Robert Begich noted in a memo that the error in forecasting was due to underestimating the production of the broods from 2012 and 2013. The 2020 forecast is based on production estimates of broods from 2014 and 2015. If accurate, the 2020 early run will be the eighth lowest in 35 years.
Late-run king salmon in the Kenai River, which occurs from early July to the season closure on the Kenai River, has a forecast of 22,707 large fish. This forecast is about 60 percent larger than the estimated total for the late run of 2019, which saw about 12,780 large fish, but would still be the sixth lowest run in 35 years. The average late run for 1986-2019 is 43,239 fish, and the most recent five-year average is 21,665 fish.
The largest king salmon run recorded since 1986 in the Kenai River occurred in 2004, when 91,312 large fish were observed in the late run.
According to ADF&G, a run of approximately 4.3 million sockeye are expected to return to Upper Cook Inlet, 2.2 million of which are forecast to return to the Kenai River, the driving force of the commercial, sport and personal use fisheries in UCI.
That number allows for a harvest of about 1.7 million sockeye for the commercial fleet, roughly what was caught in 2019 but 1.3 million sockeye below the 2019 commercial harvest forecast.
The dismal forecast comes as the BOF is preparing for the two-week marathon that happens every three years to carve up the fully allocated UCI salmon fishery.
The commercial fishery has seen opportunity erode steadily since the beginning of limited entry in 1973, or even before.
In 1970, the UCI drift fishery was open from June 17 until closed by Emergency Order, and the drift fleet was able to target sockeye salmon headed for the Russian River. The popularity of that run prized by sport fishermen led to the fishery changing in 1979 to a June 25 start date and running until closed by EO.
By 2005, the fishery did not open until the third Monday in June or June 19, whichever was later, a slight reprieve from the June 25 opening date but between the end of the run on the Russian River and the beginning of the main Kenai River sockeye run.
Regular fishing periods also went from Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays in 1970, from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. until July 15, at which time it was open those same days from 6 a.m. to 10 p.m.; in 1971 the fishery went to Mondays and Fridays 6 a.m. to 6 p.m., and then was restricted to Mondays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. in 1999, where it remains.
Then came the “corridor,” an area originally restricted to basically 3 miles offshore and one-half mile out from the setnet sites. From 1996 to 1998 the fishery was restricted to the corridor for the first regular period after July 25.
As the years stacked up, the corridor was inserted into more and more fishery management plans by the BOF, although area was added that allowed the drift fleet to move slightly farther offshore, known as the expanded corridor, but not out to where the main schools of Kenai-bound sockeye were accessible.
By 2005, time and area restrictions after July 16 were based on in-season projected run strength when the BOF to change to a “tiered system,” in the Kenai River, the only river in the state that changes escapement goals according to that criteria.
The more fish that came back, the higher the escapement goal, which allowed for more time and area in the drift fishery but also put more sockeye salmon into the Kenai River at a rate that many consider unsustainable.
According to ADF&G statistics in what is known as the Marcotte Table, the largest returns of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River happened when escapement in the parent year, roughly four years before the returning salmon, was between 650,000 and 750,000 spawners, which yielded returns of up to 10 million sockeye to UCI, which occurred in the late 1980’s and early 1990’s.
Since then, Kenai River escapement has been around 1.5 million sockeye, probably more, and the 2020 forecast of 2.2 million sockeye returning to the Kenai River seems to bear out the theory of too much of a good thing.
Under current regulations, if the BOF does not change it in the upcoming meetings, that run forecast will restrict the drift fleet to the expanded corridor and Drift Area 1 during the first and second regular fishing periods from July 9-15, and the rest of the season until July 31 will be restricted to the expanded corridor.
All UCI meeting documents including proposals and public comments can be found at http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=fisheriesboard.main. There is also a link to listen live to the meetings, starting at noon on Friday.
Cristy Fry can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org