Wednesday, August 6, 2008

Kenai sockeye run falters near finish

By Matt Tunseth
For the Redoubt Reporter

The only things moving quickly at the Pacific Star Seafoods dock in Kenai on Monday morning were the seagulls.

Fighting for scraps of fish in the mouth of the Kenai River, the birds swooped among dozens of idle fishing boats sitting on anchor. Though Mondays are usually fishing days, an emergency order by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had shut down most of the Cook Inlet fleet for a third consecutive opener, leaving fishermen like Larry Holland high and dry.

“It went down the toilet,” Holland, a driftnetter, said after pulling his boat from the water for the year.

Fishermen came into the 2008 sockeye season with high hopes after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game predicted a return of 5.6 million reds to Upper Cook Inlet, including more than 3 million to the Kenai River alone. But that hasn’t happened, according to Fish and Game biologist Jeff Fox, who manages the area’s commercial fisheries.

“Right now the run is much weaker than forecast,” Fox said.

Holland said fishing was good early in the season, but quickly dried up as July wore on.

“It went from looking like a good season to falling on its face,” Holland said.

As of Aug. 3, commercial fishermen had harvested 2.34 million sockeye salmon in Upper Cook Inlet. Fox said the weak run is primarily due to a lack of Kenai River fish, which have turned up in much smaller numbers than in past years.

“In Cook Inlet, the only bad one is the Kenai,” Fox said.

Through Sunday, Fish and Game had counted 499,178 sockeye past its in-river sonar counter. That’s fewer than the river’s minimum escapement goal, which has forced the department to impose restrictions on the commercial fleet and the in-river sports fishery.

In contrast, the Kasilof River has seen a bumper crop of salmon return, and biologists have had the commercial fleet fishing almost round the clock in the river’s mouth in order to shut off the flow of fish into the system, which has a biological escapement goal of between 150,000 and 250,000 fish.

Putting too many fish into the river can lead to weaker returns, and Fox speculated this year’s season may be a reflection of large Kenai escapements in past years.

“We’ve had several years of high escapements in a row,” Fox said.

The Kenai’s escapement goal varies depending on the size of the overall run, but it typically ranges between 650,000 and 900,000 fish. Overall, a 500,000 to 800,000 escapement produces the best runs, he said.

Over the past decade, escapements have far exceeded those numbers. Between 2002 and 2006, the Kenai’s escapement averaged 1.28 million sockeye. That’s not only bad news for this year’s season, but potentially the next several years.

“Next year, both the Kenai and Kasilof could be down,” Fox said.

Fox said large escape-ments mean fish face more competition for resources, which can lead to poor survivability rates. He said there’s a chance fisheries managers will ask the Alaska Board of Fisheries to revise the Kenai’s goals when the board next meets to discuss Cook Inlet fisheries in 2011.

“I imagine we’ll be looking at that before the next board meeting pretty seriously,” he said.

In Cook Inlet, rising fuel costs combined with mediocre prices have led many fishermen to hang up their nets. This year’s price — which on Monday was hovering at around $1.10 per pound — isn’t bad, but it’s likely the value of this season’s harvest will come in on par with the 2006 season, when just 2.4 million reds were harvested for an overall ex-vessel value of $13 million for the industry. The average price that season was $1.07. Last year’s catch was worth $22.6 million. The largest haul this decade came in 2005, when 5.48 million sockeye were worth more than $30 million to inlet fishermen.

On Monday, with most of Kenai’s drift fleet either on land or anchor, fisherman Larry Holland pulled his boat, the Beluga, from the water for good. He said he planned to head home to Washington State on Tuesday morning. After nearly two decades fishing Cook Inlet, he’s unsure if he’ll return next summer for his 20th season.

“I don’t even know if it’s worth coming up,” he said.

Nearby, rows of fishing boats sat idle, many with for sale signs plastered to their wheelhouse. Unless they’re bought up, the inlet may have seen the last of boats like the Sheik, the Mohawk, the Sumac, the Costa Lotta, the Lisa Lynn or the Kalgin Rider, all of which are on the market.
Still, Holland said he doesn’t hold any grudges about getting shut down for his final fishing openers of the year. He said he understands that the runs must be managed in order to keep the sockeye runs healthy.

“It hurts, but if you don’t get your escapement, you don’t have those fish coming back,” he said.

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