Proposal aims to restore Kenai's big king salmon

 Les Anderson stands by his world-record king salmon in 1985. (KTUU)
Les Anderson stands by his world-record king salmon in 1985. (KTUU) (KTUU)
Published: Feb. 12, 2020 at 7:23 PM AKST
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This May will mark 35 years since Les Anderson landed the world record king salmon on the Kenai River, and while much has changed in that time, most change in the past decade has not been good for Kenai king salmon.

A proposal before the Alaska Board of Fisheries aims to improve escapement of large late-run kings while still allowing anglers a chance to fish in-river.

Proposal 104 by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association would set an optimum escapement goal range 3,000 fish higher than the current sustainable escapement goal, revise and extend restrictions that would apply to both the commercial setnet fishery and the sport fishery, and create an option for the Department of Fish & Game to enact at 36 inch maximum sport size limit.

“Status quo isn’t working on the Kenai kings right now. We’ve seen numbers going down year over year in that fishery. We didn’t even meet the late season goals last year,” Ben Mohr, KRSA executive director said. “This proposal is seeing a lot of tension from both commercial and guided interests and other interests around the state. It’s purely a conservation measure. It doesn’t take from anybody without applying that to reestablishing this species and growing abundance so that we can have full, fat, open fisheries one day.”

Ken Coleman, a setnetter and Vice President of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association said that the premise of his hesitations toward the proposal is that ADF&G hasn’t had time to see the impacts of management changes put in place through previous board cycles.

During the last Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2017, the board changed the way kings are counted on the Kenai. Previously, an all fish count was used to set escapement goals. That was changed to set escapement goals based on large king salmon, which are over 34 inches.

“The Kenai River escape goal for Chinook, king salmon, has been adjusted virtually every Board of Fish over the last 10 years. And so many times when you do that, by the time you get to the next tri-annual cycle, you have not gotten the information or the statistics back of how the change you made just three years ago are impacting or driving numbers up today. And so you need a longer look at how the run is or isn’t reacting to the change that you made,” Coleman said. “Every single change has a story attached to it, and it sometimes takes five years, seven years to find out what the conclusion to the story is. We’re not getting to the conclusion. We’re getting to the midpoint of the story, and then adding another chapter at the end of a book that’s already been published.”

Coleman says he would like to see more regulatory stability and more time between significant management changes because the uncertainty makes planning a business and hiring crew more difficult.

“If the change is as proposed would be adopted, in periods of low abundance, which we’re headed into, it could mean that we won’t fish at all. And that has obvious effects long term,” Coleman said.

Though sportfishing guides face a similar uncertainty in that low abundance could lead to a fishery closure leading to lost bookings, the proposal has a provision that some guides passionately support because it gives ADF&G a management option to keep the fishery open while allowing large kings to escape to spawn.

“There’s not full agreement and there rarely is on a big proposal like this one,” Mark Wackler, a sportfishing guide on the Kenai said. “There’s some things in that plan that I really like and probably one of the most important ones that need to get in there is the 36 inch and under rule. That’s a tool that our fisheries managers haven’t been able to use because that didn’t have it in their tool box, and I think it’s important to have it in there. Whether they decide to use it or not is up to them, but to not even have that as an option has been disappointing. We can just look at last year and see that it would’ve been a very valuable tool to have.”

Wackler says that the changes to the paired restrictions, which set limits on both the commercial and sport fisheries based on how low the run is, will need to be worked out by the board, but he wants to see the board focus on conservation.

“I think that’s something that maybe hasn’t been the focus of some of these board cycles in the past and we’re at a point now where we’ve seen several years of low abundance on these big king salmon and they’re such an important part of our area, of our fishery, of our watershed and we need to get them back one way or another,” Wackler said.

The board is expected to begin deliberations on the proposal and others pertaining to the Kenai River late-run king salmon on Thursday.

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