‘I just hope one day, these fish will come back’ — Low king counts close sport and set-net fisheries, again
Fishing for kings on the Kenai River is again off limits this month. It’s the third year in a row the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has closed the fishery early amid low king salmon counts.
The closure also means set-netters who fish the east side of Cook Inlet are no longer allowed to fish this season. Their fishery closes when king counts are down.
The poor king run may not come as a surprise to most. King salmon have been on the downswing in Alaska for more than a decade.
Still — it’s worrying for fishermen and guides who now have to change their plans in the face of a truncated season.
“Although we do need to conserve these fish, I just hope one day — and still have hope — that these fish will come back," said Ray DeBardelaben, president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and owner of the aptly named guide business, Long Live the Kings.
He said clients used to return to his business year after year to try and catch the Kenai River trophy fish.
But king salmon have been struggling on the Kenai — and around Alaska. Biologists say they don’t really know why.
It's not just the runs in Southcentral Alaska, either. Fish and Game said Tuesday this year’s king run on the Yukon River might be the lowest ever observed.
Fish and Game said it wants the late Kenai king run to fall between 15,000 to 30,000 large king salmon. That’s its optimal escapement goal for the July run.
But the department estimates under current conditions, only 11,500 kings would pass under the radar by the end of the month. As of Monday, 3,419 kings had passed through the sonar at mile 13.7 of the Kenai River.
With the limits on king fishing this month and last, DeBardelaben said he tells guides they have to diversify to other types of fish — bringing clients along to catch sockeye, halibut and trout.
He said his regular clients are generally understanding of that new reality.
“When people call to book trips with me, I just tell them we’re going fishing," he said. "Where, for what, I don't know. But we’re going to get in my boat, we’re going to go have some fun, we’re going to catch some fish — and maybe not catch some fish. It’s just the new kind of lifestyle as a Kenai River guide, and the Kasilof River.”
Fish and Game is also closing the king salmon fishery on the Kasilof River.
The Kasilof king run is unmonitored. But Colton Lipka with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said due to low king counts across Cook Inlet, it’s likely that the run is struggling, as well. And he said the restriction is so so anglers don’t flock en masse to fish kings there when the Kenai is closed to king fishing.
DeBardelaben said the changes are hard on guides, especially the new ones.
“The guide numbers are definitely going to be down this year," he said.
Not all groups are able to pivot when their fishery is limited.
The east side set-net fishery is shut down, meaning set-netters from Ninilchik to Boulder Point, on the northern Kenai Peninsula, won’t have any more openers unless king salmon abundance improves.
This is the fourth year in a row they’ve had closures due to low king salmon escapement.
Set-netter Brent Johnson, of Clam Gulch, said he was worried there would be a closure this summer. But he said this year’s came even earlier than most.
“Two years ago, [July] 28 was our last fishing day," he said. "Last year, the 23 was our last fishing day. So is this earlier? Oh my God, yes.”
The paired restrictions on the set-netters are meant to curb incidental king salmon catch. The Alaska Board of Fisheries said set-netters are more likely to catch kings than the drift fleet.
But set-netters say they’ve been able to get creative to avoid catching kings. They caught approximately 32 large king salmon so far this month, according to Fish and Game. That’s a small fraction of the total king run.
“Every conceivable type of user is out there harvesting at a high rate, And we’re being closed for the fourth year in a row, early," said Ken Coleman, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association. "And it’s devastating.”
He also said the closures were somewhat expected.
This spring, anticipating those closures, the Board of Fish considered an out-of-cycle proposal that would’ve opened a limited set-net fishery this year.
But that proposal garnered significant pushback from sportfishing advocates and was narrowly defeated by the board.
“Moving forward, we’d like to find a way to make that kind of situation work. So if we’re in this bright red area, where we’re completely closed and facing another disaster season, that there would be some way to do some limited harvest," Coleman said.
Coleman said set-netters, most of whom are from the central Kenai Peninsula, are hurting. And he also said he’s worried about over escapement of sockeye salmon in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers if the set-netters aren’t allowed to fish.
“We’ve got some time between now and the next Board [of Fish] meeting — 2024 is the next meeting," he said. "It’s a ways away, and there could be more pain between then and now. I certainly hope not."
Johnson said his site grossed about $56,000 this season. That’s on par with how much they made in 2012, which he called another “doomsday” year.
“So this will be tying the record for the all-time worst — except with inflation, of course, $56,000 is worse in 2022 than it is in 2012," he said.
He said he’s having his crew work on cabin maintenance at the set-net site for the last few weeks of the season to make sure he's not leaving them high and dry without work.