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Amid Worries over Low King Salmon Runs, Commercial Fisherman on the Kenai River Target Sockeyes

July 16, 2012|by Rhonda McBride

Anchorage, AK. — Kings vs. sockeyes.

It’s a debate that continued on the Kenai River, as commercial fishing got underway on Monday with some of the worst king salmon numbers on record. 

The Upper Cook Inlet driftnet fleet and setnetters on the east end of the Inlet had twelve hours of commercial fishing on Monday, capitalizing on a strong pulse of sockeye salmon. Fish and game biologists say between 200,000 to 250,000 sockeyes entered the river over the past few days, compared to the kings, which still are barely trickling in.   

Pat Shields, a state biologist in Soldotna, says the kings number only in the hundreds, so it’s like trying to keep track of small pieces of straw while dealing with big bales of hay.     

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“And I guess that analogy works to point out to people that it is a very serious challenge to try to accurately estimate the number of king salmon swimming up the Kenai River, when they’re mixed in with hundreds of thousands of sockeye,” said Shields.

The driftnetters, which fish offshore, are less likely to catch kings, so they will be allowed more commercial fishing time on Tuesday.  But the setnetters, which are prone to catching more kings, will have to wait until the fish are counted after Monday’s opening, to see if they’ll be able to fish on Thursday, as scheduled.

Fish and Game has already forewarned commercial fishermen to expect more restrictive measures, if there’s no significant improvement in the strength of the king run.

The king salmon sports fishery, which is almost completely limited to catch and release, could see a complete closure.  By law, this would also shut down the commercial setnet fishery. 

For fishing guides, the catch and release restriction is already hurting business. 

“Once you go catch and release, a lot of the clients will start cancelling, so we’ve seen a dramatic impact on the local economy,” says Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportsfishing Association.

Gease would like to see the state board of fisheries call a statewide meeting to address the poor returns of king salmon all over Alaska this year.   

”Through the last one hundred years, king salmon tend to be very abundant. Then they go through these troughs, and we’re in a trough right now,” said Gease.  “We need to figure out how to fish on kings without harvesting a lot of them, so these other fisheries and the economy can keep on going.” 

So far this season, the tradeoffs have exacted a high cost to commercial and sports fishing.  Retention of king salmon in the Kenai personal use dipnet fishery is also banned this season. 

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