Robust sockeye run forecast for Inlet

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s recently released outlook is predicting a relatively robust sockeye salmon run for Upper Cook Inlet this season. That’s coupled with a fairly strong Kenai king salmon run, which should allow the department to more closely follow the management plan and loosen restrictions of recent years, especially for the setnetters.

The preseason forecast for sockeye salmon is 7.1 million total run, with a commercial harvest of around 4.1 million, which is 1.2 million over the 10-year average.

The late-run Kenai king salmon is forecasted to be 30,000 fish, which should allow managers up to 84 additional hours of fishing time per week for setnetters in the east side setnet fishery, over and above the  two 12-hour periods per week.

“If you add all that up, it comes to 108 hours that you could fish during the course of the week,” according to area management biologist Pat Shields in Soldotna.

The so-called “windows,” 36 consecutive hours of fishery closure prior to the weekend to allow  salmon into the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers for sport and personal use fishermen, remain in place from 7 p.m. Thursdays until 7 a.m. Saturdays.

Sockeye and king salmon returns to the Kenai River rule the Upper Cook Inlet fishery, and the projected return of 4.7 million sockeye in the Kenai puts the commercial fishery into the upper tier of the management plan, which allows for the extra fishing time for setnetters, and backs off some area restrictions for the drift fleet.

The caveat, said Shields, is that the 2015 Kenai king run came in at around 32,000 fish, 2,000 fish under the 2016 forecast.

He said that the sport fishery will start out with anglers allowed to use bait and harvest the fish, as opposed to no bait and catch and release.

“If the forecast is right, there will not be enough king salmon to get through July without some kind of restricted fishery,” he said. “So we’ll be watching the king salmon numbers, just like we have the past few years, closely from day to day.”

Shields said that having the projected sockeye return in the upper tier of the management plan also brings about changes to the drift fleet management plan.

It still allows the drift fleet to fish one day per week, from July 16 to 31, out of the expanded corridor, but that one day can be Inlet-wide, rather than confined to the expanded corridor and 

Area 1, which starts below the south end of Kalgin Island. 

“I know a lot of drifters that like to fish up in the northern part of the Inlet in the latter couple weeks of July; that’s something that they look at very favorably,” Shields said.

Shields talked about the increasing number of “jack” king salmon returning to the Kenai River, a concern for spawning success and size of fish in the sport fishery.

He said that there is a 45 to 50 percent range of the return of what are considered by the department to be jacks, which are kings that have spent one to two years in the ocean, something that has been going on for about a decade.

He said that all king salmon that return to rivers and streams are sexually mature, regardless of their age, but that does not mean they can necessarily compete as spawners.

In reality, the way it works when they are spawning, they are territorial and very aggressive, and the larger males will tend to run those smaller males off. The smaller males have a much lesser success rate at being able to spawn with larger females.

Not only that, genetics being what they are, the overall size of the Kenai kings is probably going down.

“Small fish tend to beget smaller fish. If a very small male king spawns with a large female, their offspring would tend to be made up of more smaller sized fish, younger aged fish at their return, than if a large male spawns with a large female,” Shields said.

He added that ADF&G is keeping a close eye on the percentage of jack returns in order to make sure the forecast is relatively accurate.

With half the king salmon return coming back as jacks, they build variabilities into the models that look at quality as well as quantity of the returns.

“If we were to see an abnormally large number of small fish in the escapement, first of all they would largely be comprised of males, and if you saw that happening in a number of years in a row, it would be something the department would have to address in our escapement goals,” Shields said.

He said the current level of 50 percent jacks is not at a level of serious concern.

“If it gets above that, 70 to 80 percent, and stayed that way for a number of years, that would be something the department would have to address,” Shields said.

Shields said that it is not only a concern in the Kenai River. It is something that started happening state-wide in the early 2000s.

“It’s something that happened all over the state. Something happened, and nobody has been able to explain to me exactly what’s causing that, what’s causing that shift in our king salmon, to have the age composition shift toward younger aged fish in the return.

“For a long time we didn’t see any difference in size. One, two, three, four ocean fish were coming back at the size they always did. There were just more younger fish in each year’s returns. We don’t have a clear understanding of why that’s happening,” he said.

Shields added that the department largely uses scale samples, rather than otoliths, or ear bones,  to determine fish age, which are collected at buying stations and processing plants. Halibut samplers use otoliths to determine fish age.

The reason is simple: obtaining otoliths involves cutting into the fish.

“Processors don’t like us cutting into their fish,” he said, “even into the heads.”

Cristy Fry can be reached at