Cook Inlet sockeye fishery opens early with unprecedented return

Posted: Tuesday, June 21, 2005

KENAI - Commercial salmon fishermen were busy getting nets mended and engines tuned up for what was shaping up to be a solid season opener in the eastern Cook Inlet.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency opening running from 7 a.m. until 7 p.m. Sunday for setnet fishermen in the Kasilof section of the upper Cook Inlet subdistrict. The closure for the drift gillnet fishery in the Kasilof section within 2 miles of shore also is no longer in effect, and regular Monday and Thursday openings for set and drift fishermen were to continue until Fish and Game said otherwise.

The 2-mile from shore closure for drift gillnets in the Kenai and East Forelands sections was to remain in effect until those areas open for the regular season July 11.

A strong return of sockeye salmon to the Kasilof led to the early opener, according to Fish and Game area commercial fisheries biologist Jeff Fox.

"So far it's the highest escapement to date we've had," he said.

Already, nearly 50,000 sockeye have entered the Kasilof, and Fox said the total return to the Kasilof could be as high as 1 million more than last year's bumper return of 911,000 sockeye.

Commercial fishermen getting ready for the season are hopeful this year could be good for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

"I think it'll be a pretty fair run," said drifter Steve Farnsworth while working to install a new reel setup on his boat, the Torpedo, near the Kenai docks.

While plenty of fish are headed to Cook Inlet streams, the big question always is price. Processors won't give out numbers, leaving fishermen to speculate as to what price may be paid for their haul.

Judging by the activity along the beaches from Nikiski to Kasilof, most fishermen believe the season could be decent. Laura Blanchard's beach site was busy Sunday, as some of the site's nearly 30 workers - most of them Blanchard's family members or friends - mended nets and worked to get one of the site's skiffs seaworthy.

Speculation about price and returns aside, Blanchard said she's excited to be getting ready for another season at the beach this year will be her 31st fishing for salmon with her family.

She said she continues to stick with the industry in spite of the low prices that have been paid since the early 1990s, when the Japanese market crashed under the weight of a glut of farmed salmon on the market.

"Through thick and thin, I do my best for the family and now the grandkids," she said. "They're growing up in the industry, and eventually they'll take it over if it's still there for them."

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