The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has reduced its initial projection for the total sockeye salmon return to the Kenai River, but it still figures to rank among the top five all time.
The latest estimate for the Kenai River sockeye run is about 6 million, down a bit from the first projection of 6.7 million issued July 22. That would rank anywhere from fourth to sixth for returns dating back to 1968. The all-time record for the Kenai River sockeye run is about 9.4 million in 1987.
Although most management restrictions are lifted for any Kenai run greater than 4.6 million and it is now certain the upper end of the escapement goal of 1.35 million will be exceeded, ADF&G hasn’t utilized all the commercial fishing time available in order to protect a below average run of Kenai River king salmon.
ADF&G kept in place a Tuesday closure for setnet fishing July 26, and the 36-hour setnet closure known as the “weekend window” that began July 29.
In tandem with keeping the setnet closures in place, ADF&G has fished the drift fleet aggressively outside the setnet boundaries to clean up the massive sockeye harvest because the drifters don’t catch nearly as many king salmon as the setnetters along the beach.
Retention of king salmon by dipnetters has been prohibited, and in-river anglers were no longer allowed to use bait after July 25. Conservation measures are needed to ensure king salmon escapement beats the lower end of the goal, or 17,800.
As of July 25, when the late run is typically 80 percent complete, the estimate for total king salmon passage was 15,704.
Through July 27, the total sockeye harvest for Upper Cook Inlet was 4.6 million, 600,000 more than the preseason forecast. ADF&G estimates that all user groups, which include the personal use dipnet fishery and sport anglers, have harvested about 5 million sockeye so far.
The total return for all of Upper Cook Inlet is projected to be about 9 million, well above the preseason forecast of 6.4 million.
Through July 26, escapement by sockeye into the Kenai River was 1.2 million, just less than the top of the escapement goal of 1.35 million, with numbers from the test fishery showing the sockeye are still returning en masse.
Escapement goals are designed to allow enough fish to reach the spawning grounds to provide for a sustained yield while not allowing too many and reducing the survival rate.
The primacy of managing to the Kenai River escapement goal has long been a point of contention between commercial and sport fishing groups. Sport fishing groups believe concerns about over-escapement need to be balanced against allowing more king and silver salmon into the river.
The commercial sector believes allowing over-escapement will eventually destroy the salmon run by overwhelming the spawning grounds and reducing the survival rate.
At this point in what’s shaped up as a historic sockeye run, the sport fishing groups believe they’ve been vindicated. Early indications from the harvest are that the 6-year-old age class is returning at a much higher rate than expected to both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
Escapement to the Kenai in 2005 was 1.64 million, far above the upper end of the goal.
After July 31, what’s known as the “1 percent” rule takes effect to determine when the sockeye fishery ends. If the setnet fishery takes less than 1 percent of its total harvest for the season in two consecutive fishing periods, the season can end before Aug. 15.
For example, the setnet sockeye harvest through July 27 was about 1.56 million. If that was the total as of Aug. 1, and if the setnet catch was less than 15,600 for consecutive periods (which are limited to a calendar day), the season would end and the drift fleet would be restricted from the middle of Upper Cook Inlet and moved to the west side fishing grounds.
The purpose of the 1 percent rule is to provide an orderly end to the sockeye season and transition to management for allowing the fall run of silver salmon to reach the Northern District and the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
• Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.