The Upper Cook Inlet salmon return is beginning to take shape and escapement goals look well within reach for both Kenai and Kasilof river sockeye. But that hasn’t translated to big harvests for commercial fishermen.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game management coordinator Pat Shields says the commercial catch is below its typical numbers at this point in the season.
“Both rivers, as far as the number of fish that have entered the river, are ahead of schedule for where you would normally expect them to be at this time, while on the commercial harvest end, it’s just the opposite story. We’re (at) some of the lowest commercial harvest on Kenai/Kasilof stock to date in the past 20 years.”
Some of that is due to restrictions in place because of another year of low king salmon returns. With the sport fisheries limited to no bait for kings, that automatically restricts commercial harvests to 48 hours per week and open by emergency order only.
“We have been fishing a lot of Mondays and Thursdays kind of like they were regular periods, but our approach has been fairly conservative this year when it comes to commercial fishing time. The harvest numbers being low for this time of year reflect that," Shields says.
Another factor in the low commercial harvest is run timing. Waters all over the state are seeing well above average temperatures and that can cause a delay in the salmon’s return to the river. It’s a trend that’s been accelerating for several years, Shields says, pushing the homecoming back further on the calendar every year.
“We’ve noted that since the 80’s, we’re significantly later. And in the last few years, even later than this slow, gradual shift to a late run. Now we’re seeing runs that can be five, six, seven, eight days later at the sonar and four and five days later at the test fish transect line down across the Inlet from Anchor Point.”
That all means that commercial fishing is no longer being done evenly across the length of the return. More fish are being caught early in the run, as fewer late run fish are harvested. Shields says that could lead to even more changes in run timing, as more fish that are genetically predisposed to showing up early are caught in the future. But it’s not as easy as just shifting things back a week on the calendar.
“So as you want to put additional pressure or even an average amount of pressure on the end of the sockeye run, then you also begin to sometimes have some conflict with the beginning of the coho salmon runs. So, management plans play a role in this but yes, we are instructed and it is important to us to try to harvest runs throughout their timing so that you don’t end up artificially creating a run that’s either early or late.”
The latest counts as of Sunday showed almost 200,000 sockeye past the sonar counters on the Kenai river. Late run Kenai kings are at just over 3,000 and the Kasilof sockeye count at more than 160,000. Six million sockeye are expected to eventually make it back to Upper Cook Inlet.