Commercial fishing season picks up, king restrictions in place

Jul 12, 2021

A commercial fishing vessel floats at anchor near the Kenai City Dock in the Kenai River on Friday, July 9, 2021 in Kenai, Alaska.
Credit Elizabeth Earl / KDLL

Commercial fishing is underway across Upper Cook Inlet. Some fishermen to the north of Kenai have had their nets in the water since May, but permit holders in the setnet and drift gillnet fisheries are just getting into the heat of the season as the Kenai and Kasilof sockeye runs pick up. That’s where the majority of the harvest is.

So far, commercial fishermen have harvested 303,582 salmon of all species. About 96 percent of that is sockeye, though—those are the money fish in Cook Inlet. So far, about 195,000 sockeye have passed the sonar on the Kasilof River, and 103,000 sockeye have passed the Kenai sonar, which comes online July 1.

It’s still too early in the year for pink and silver salmon, and chum salmon aren’t a major commercial species in most of Upper Cook Inlet.  King salmon used to be, especially for setnets, but in the past decade, they’ve dwindled. Commercial fishermen across Upper Cook Inlet have harvested 2,793 of them this season, more than half of which were harvested by setnetters in the inlet north of Kenai.

“As of July 9, the total harvest estimate of Kenai River late run large king salmon in the east side setnet fishery was 91 fish,” said Brian Marston, the commercial area management biologist for Upper Cook Inlet, in the daily announcement from Fish and Game. “The total east side setnet harvest of king salmon of all sizes and all stocks, was 525.”

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game opened a 12-hour commercial fishing period today. Drifters are allowed in the corridor that runs along the peninsula between Kenai and Kasilof as well as in the center of the inlet, in a zone called Drift Area 1.

The forecast for this year’s harvest across all of Upper Cook Inlet is 2.37 million sockeye. The fishermen have a long way to go if they’re going to reach that before most of the fishery closes in August and effort drops off.

One restricting factor so far has been gear. The commercial fishery is tied to the king salmon sportfishery on the Kenai River when king salmon numbers are too low to support harvest without restrictions, called “paired restrictions.” Because of the restrictions on early-run kings, commercial fishermen were limited in June on what kinds of gear they could use. They were also limited on time. Sportfishermen couldn’t keep early-run kings, and the run did make the escapement goal.

July kicked off the late-run of kings, and Fish and Game started off the month with harvest but no bait allowed in the sportfishery for Kenai king salmon. However, this afternoon, the department announced that effective Wednesday, the king run will be catch and release only until July 31.

Projections are for the king salmon run to only reach 10,778 large fish, significantly below the lower end of the escapement goal, which is a minimum of 15,000 large kings. The run is underperforming even the weak forecast, and without harvest restrictions, managers don’t expect it to reach the escapement goal, according to the emergency order.

That means, on top of gear restrictions, setnetters on the east side go to no more than 24 hours of fishing each week. That’s usually done in two 12-hour periods.

Fish and Game also switched the Kasilof River king sportfishery to catch-and-release, in part to prevent the fishing effort that’s diverted off the Kenai to being focused on the Kasilof.

The department says it will continue to monitor the run and make changes if necessary based on in-season information.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabethearl@gmail.com.