ANCHORAGE — The Kenai River should be crowded in July with sport fishermen willing to spend big on once-in-a-lifetime guided trips in hopes of catching a trophy Alaska king salmon.
But the river, considered by many to be Alaska’s premier salmon river, is being placed off-limits to sport king fishing because so few kings are returning to the river. The closure effectively ends king fishing on the Kenai for the summer.
The closure issued by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game takes effect at 12:01 a.m. Thursday.
“It looks like this is the lowest run that we have ever seen in the Kenai on record going back into the 1980s,” Robert Begich, the department’s area management biologist, said Wednesday.
The Kenai River management plan stipulates that if the projected run of king salmon is less than 17,800 kings, the department will close the fishery. Fish entering the river are tracked by in-river sonar, which counted just 4,033 kings. That means a total estimate of between 10,300 and 15,800 late-run Kenai kings — well below the number set for closure.
Fish and Game tried a number of other measures to avoid a closure, including a never-before prohibition on using bait and catch-and-release fishing only, but it wasn’t enough, Begich said.
With about half of the late-run of Kenai kings complete, it appears that it is not going to meet even minimum escapement goals when the run ends in early August. Minimum escapement goals are set to ensure that enough fish are available to spawn to sustain future runs.
Begich said the rest of the late-run Kenai kings need to get upriver to spawn for the sake of the fishery’s future.
The Kenai is not the only river being closed at this time to king fishing. Fish and Game also is closing the nearby Kasilof River to conserve its late run of kings.
Kings are the largest of the five salmon species in Alaska and usually weigh about 30 pounds. However, they can get much bigger. The largest king caught on record in the state was in 1949 and weighed 126 pounds.
The big fish are vital to the Kenai Peninsula economy, bringing in anglers who spend not only for guided trips but also on restaurants, hotels and a host of other goods and services. There are about 300 licensed Kenai guides, said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. They are now hoping to convince clients to fish for something else, perhaps smaller red salmon, halibut or rainbow trout, he said.
“You can just imagine the ripple effect this is having on our community,” Gease said, of the king closure.
Sport fishermen won’t even be allowed to reel in a mistakenly caught king for a quick catch-and-release photo. Fish and Game says any kings accidentally caught may not be removed from the water.
King salmon runs throughout Alaska have been weak this summer.
People living along the 2,000-mile Yukon River in western Alaska have been largely prevented from subsistence fishing for kings because of low returns. They rely on the fish for food in what is the state’s largest subsistence fishery.
The 2012 king salmon run on the Yukon is expected to be worse than last year, and that was the worst run in 30 years.