Fish and Game sockeye numbers questioned amid large pink salmon run

ADF&G uses a fish wheel at river mile 19 to determine the proportion of the different salmon...
ADF&G uses a fish wheel at river mile 19 to determine the proportion of the different salmon species moving upstream.(KTUU)
Published: Aug. 21, 2020 at 7:36 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - More than 100,000 sockeye salmon passed through the Lower Kenai River over three days in the past week according to the Department of Fish and Game, but some river users believe that the department’s fish counts are inflating the number of sockeye salmon by inaccurately counting pink salmon as sockeye.

Joe Hanes has been on the river since 1969 and has operated a guide service on the river since 1986. He says he’s seen an apparent disconnect between the department’s numbers and the conditions in the river for around 15 years, especially on even-numbered years when Kenai sees a dramatically larger run of pink salmon.

“A lot of people think they’re going to come down here and catch sockeye salmon because the department said over 300,000, or well over 200,000 sockeye came in the river the last few days,” Hanes said. “As we can see, they’re all pinks.”

ADF&G Division of Commercial Fisheries operates the fish counting site at river mile 19 of the Kenai River.

The Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan directs the department to manage the late-run sockeye “primarily for commercial uses based on abundance. The department shall also manage the commercial fisheries to minimize the harvest of Northern District coho, late-run Kenai River king, and Kenai River coho salmon stocks to provide personal use, sport, and guided sport fishermen with a reasonable opportunity to harvest salmon resources.”

Between the commercial, sport and personal use fisheries, ADF&G is to manage the fishery to meet an in-river escapement goal range of 1 million to 1.2 million sockeye in 2020.

A sonar counts the total number of fish that move upriver and a fish wheel collects a sample of fish, from which the department gauges the proportions of various salmon species.

Hanes worries that inaccurate data on the number and species of fish in-river could cause the department to think it is allowing enough fish to escape upriver and spawn when that is not the case.

“Just three years ago this river was shut because of low abundance of sockeye salmon,” Hanes said. “The commercial guys were shut down, and by counting these -- achieving your escapements through counting pink salmon is just bad for all the users.”

In addition to his observations on the river, Hanes backs his stance with data from another ADF&G netting survey site downriver.

Brian Marston, Upper Cook Inlet Area Manager for ADF&G Div. of Commercial Fisheries, says he has fielded numerous calls and emails with concerns about the accuracy of the late-run sockeye counts, but he stands by the department’s data.

“I’m definitely confident the proportions are correct,” Marston said. “We’ve tested it by floating gillnets out in front of it or by anchoring gillnets out in front of it, or also using beach seines, and the only difference we could find in those situations was a difference potentially of one and four percent.”

The department has discontinued the use of fish wheels to determine the proportions of salmon species in some locations, but Marston says the method is the most appropriate for the Kenai.

There are a number of points Marston says help explain the disconnect between an angler’s experience and the sockeye counts.

“The main thing I want to do immediately is explain that we do count pinks. About 90% of the people who contacted me didn’t even know that we counted them because it’s not available on the sockeye salmon website,” Marston said. “Now in the future, we’re planning to rectify that and put the number on, especially on pink years, so that if you pull up the sockeye salmon number, you will also pull up the pink number automatically.”

In the past week, even though the sockeye count surpassed 100,000 fish on three separate days, the total number of sockeye was still swamped by the number of pink salmon. From Aug. 14 through Aug. 20, the number of pink salmon was nearly double the number of sockeye salmon counted. On Wednesday, 93.7% of the salmon caught in the department’s fish wheel were pink salmon, according to the department’s draft analysis of the fish count data.

Marston says that the differences in fish behavior can also explain some of the frustrations some fishermen have voiced.

“I’m an angler myself and I don’t think there’s any angler that would object to a description that pinks will take a lure or anything put in front of them much more readily than a sockeye,” Marston said. “If there’s 10 of each species in front of you, you’re probably going to catch all 10 of those pinks before you catch one or two of those sockeye. That’s just a behavior thing.”

Despite the explanations provided by the ADF&G, Hanes says he still struggles to understand why the department doesn’t recognize a problem that is apparent to him and other fishermen. He’d like to see the department put an apportionment net at the counter site.

“This year with the clearer water, everybody can see it,” Marston said. “It’s obvious that these are pink salmon.”

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