The Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order restricting personal use setnetting on the Kasilof River Thursday. That fishery’s time will be cut in half in an effort to get more king salmon up the Kasilof River.
Fish and Game put a very similar restriction in place last summer. The difference is how they cut fishing time, approximately in half. Last year, they closed the fishery halfway through its 10-day season. This year, personal use setnetters will get the full season, but fishing hours per day will be cut. It’s open from 6 a.m. to 3 p.m., beginning June 15. Usually it’s open until 11 p.m.
ADF&G commercial fisheries area management biologist Pat Shields says there’s not an exact correlation between decreasing fishing time and decreasing the harvest of early-run Kasilof kings, but it’s close.
“No, I don’t have some table, some graph, some analysis that will indicate that we’re gonna save 43.1 percent of the fish by taking away 43.1 percent of the hours,” Shields said. “But that’s what we would assume – take away half the hours, we would hope that we would save half of the harvest of the kings.”
Kenai River-bound king salmon get most of the attention, but both the early and the late run on the Kasilof have their own struggles. The early run has missed its escapement goals in two of the last five years, even when the department put heavy sport fishing restrictions in place. The Kasilof is also unique from the Kenai because it supports a run of hatchery kings as well as naturally produced ones.
“The way the department determines the difference between a naturally-produced king salmon and a hatchery king salmon in the Kasilof River is looking at the adipose fin,” Shields said. “All of the hatchery fish that are released into that system have that fin removed and so we can then identify them when they return as adults and look at a fish and see if it’s a hatchery-produced one, or if it has that fin on there, we know that it was produced naturally.”
But even with those differences, Shields says management of the Kasilof sort of mirrors what’s happening on the Kenai, because that river simply has more and better equipment set up for counting fish.
“By the time those kings get up to the hatchery, they’re really through the fishery and it’s too late for any in-season action,” Shields said. “Because we have a sonar counter in the Kenai River that’s more real-time, we kind of look at what’s going on in the Kenai and make that as a surrogate for the Kasilof.”
“So, last year, when we closed the Kenai River early-run fishery, we went ahead and took action in the Kasilof sport fishery, too, and took action in the personal-use gillnet fishery.”
Low numbers are the biggest concern for the Kasilof, but Shields says the restrictions have another purpose.
“To somewhat alleviate some of the pressure Kasilof, because that’s where folks would go, you would expect that all those fishermen that were going to fish the Kenai would now go to the Kasilof,” Shields said. “They often take actions in the Kasilof jus to stave off some of that expected increased harvest pressure that would be put on the Kasilof.”
As we recall, the fishing for the early king run on the Kenai was shut down completely this year – a pretty drastic move. And sportfishing on the Kasilof, taking all the restrictions together, is all but closed. But there’s some good news.
“To-date, right now, the Kenai River early run is promising – especially compared to last year. I mean, it’s not a robust, large run by any means, but we already have made the forecast for the return this year and we’re only between a third and a half way through the run, depending on run timing,” Shields said. “And, so, that’s encouraging that the early run, to-date, anyways, is returning at a rate better than we expected.”
Shields says the Susitna River is seeing a better than expected run of kings, too. And so is the Deshka.
“At this point, though, it’s good to be talking about a glass that might be half full rather than saying for sure the glass is half empty,” Shields said. “And we haven’t been able to talk positively about kings for a few years.”
“I’m not trying to say that we’re there yet, because we are early in these runs, but at least the early part of the king salmon returns in quite a few systems this year look promising.”
Of course, no numbers are out yet for the Kasilof, but the early king run on the Kenai has already surpassed last year’s run with three weeks left.
As of Monday, more than 2,200 kings had been counted.