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Slow sockeye return forces closure of commercial fisheries

The sockeye run continues its slow burn into the Kenai River.

The cumulative count as of Sunday stood at 330,000 fish, well below historic averages and less than half of what we saw at the same time last year.


Commercial drift and setnetters have been shut down since last week in an effort to allow more sockeye into the river. Management plans call for an analysis on July 20 to see where the run is and how much fishing time various user groups will get on the back end of the season. Pat Shields, Alaska Department of Fish and Game area commercial fisheries manager, says the regular openings on Mondays and Thursdays will remain closed until counts hit 900,000.

“Up through the 20th of July, most of our indications said that we were going to be at or above forecast and that we were going to meet or exceed our escapement objectives. After the July 20th regular fishing period, we had noted that things had begun to slow down and we have adjusted by not fishing any extra periods, and now we’ve closed today, July 24th’s, regular period.”

No one day has seen more than about 30,000 fish into the river, and that’s becoming a trend with this late sockeye run.

“I don’t have an explanation for that. Other staff don’t, either. Fish vary their migration behavior each year. Four or five years ago, we had these great big days where two or three hundred thousand fish would come to the river mouth in one tide. I can’t explain why that’s not occurring now. That said, (in) both 2015 and 2016, we exceeded our in-river objective. So, it was just a lot of below-average days that ended up exceeding the number of fish we were to put in the river.”

The overall commercial harvest stands at about 1.4 million fish. That’s well below the long-term average of closer to three million. Shields says up until last week, the commercial fleet, at least in the Kasilof section, was doing OK. But even with the gillnets on hold, fishing has been a mixed bag for sport anglers and personal-use fishermen.

“We’ve heard (of) some very good fishing, a lot of fish being harvested in the personal-use fishery to others saying no, they had a difficult time finding fish. And that’s the same on the in-river sport fishery, where some folks have been able to catch their limits at the numbers we’ve been putting in, others have struggled. So there’s no doubt we’re hoping there are good days yet to come and we’re going to stay off of harvesting Kenai sockeye until we’re comfortable that we can project making that 900,000 minimum goal."

On a brighter note, the tally on the Kasilof River is fine. Shields says they’ve hit the target there with more than 190,000 fish into the river. The late king run to the Kenai is continuing its relative resurgence. As of Sunday, nearly 9,000 kings had been counted with almost a month left for that run.


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