Kenai River Sockeye: How Fish & Game is dividing access to limited fish
Cook Inlet Sockeye runs are surprisingly low this year. The Alaska Dept. of Fish and Game is closing the personal use fishery on the Kenai River starting Monday, and the bag limit is also reduced. On the commercial fishing side, sockeye salmon harvests are the worst they've been since 1980.
"Kind of like Kings, the Sockeye are coming in less than we expected," explained Tom Vania, Southcentral Regional Supervisor for Sport Fisheries, in a live interview on KTVA's First Take at Five. "Early indications are those fish that spent three years in the ocean, that usually make up the bulk of the run, those are the ones that are really coming in poor this year. So, that was kind of unexpected."
As the Dept. of Fish and Game implements new restrictions to try to compensate for the low sockeye count, representatives say it has an obligation to share the burden between user groups.
"We've been pulling fishing periods and limiting the area open to the commercial fishermen to target stocks like the Kasilof, where we actually have decent returns now," said Bert Lewis, Southcentral Regional Supervisor for Commercial Fisheries. "We've been restricting the fishery which is why we see the harvest at the lowest levels we've seen in thirty eight years."
When asked whether the bycatch of King Salmon by commercial fisheries is affecting the population of kings for sport fishing, Vania replied: "Any time you have less fish coming into the river, there's going to be less for sport fishing. But we're on track to achieve the escapement goal for king salmon on the Kenai, and that was a part of restricting all the fisheries to make sure that we have enough for spawning."
As for the infamous "fish wars," between sport and commercial fisheries on the Kenai, Lewis says the Dept. defers to regulations that the Board of Fish has adopted to allocate to each user group, and implements management plans aimed at allowing equitable harvest of the fish.
"We can't just restrict and expect to have a ten percent reduction of harvest in the commercial fishery and then equitably do that for the personal use fishery for example because the way the fish come in, you can't really anticipate when they're going to be harvested," Lewis said. "We always compare it to acting like you have a scalpel when you have a hammer."
While Fish and Game has several tools for documenting fish runs, there is room for error. In June, KYUK Radio reported that the Department had overestimated the amount of king salmon returning to the Kuskokwim River for decades.
"We've made a lot of advances in technology that's there," Vania said of the error. "Now we are managing towards achieving an escapement goal based upon large fish. Because we can separate large fish, large kings, from sockeye salmon or pink salmon or silver salmon to give us a more accurate indication of what's going into the river. So, we're always looking to improve and refine our estimates to kind of reduce that error in those."
As for restrictions this year, Vania says the Department would rather underestimate than overestimate when it comes to the number of Sockeye in the Kenai River.
"Our mandates are to err on the side of the fish, not on the people. So, that's what we strive to do is if, there's always uncertain in all the actions that we take, and so you always have that eye to what's best for the fish," Vania said.
While the Kenai River personal fishery will be closed beginning Monday, Vania notes that Fish Creek is open for personal use fishing through the end of the month, and the Kasilof River is open to sport fishing through August 7th.