Forecast predicts another poor sockeye season for Cook Inlet

Dipnetters crowd the water on the north shore of the Kenai River in 2014. (Annie Feidt/Alaska Public Media)

Upper Cook Inlet fishermen should expect another below-average sockeye salmon run this year.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts a return of 4,370,000 sockeye to Upper Cook Inlet in 2021, according to a report released Friday

Brian Marston, Fish and Game’s area manager for UCI commercial fisheries, said the projections aren’t surprising.

“We have seen lower-than-average runs, or right around the 4.3 million mark, which is what we’re predicting this year,” he said. “So it’s not too different from recent numbers, but it is below average.”

The inlet’s 20-year average is nearly 6 million sockeye. But runs over the last few years have been lower.

Last year’s sockeye run was the lowest since 1971, at 4.36 million fish. Commercial fishermen saw a harvest of 700,000 salmon in 2020, over 1 million short of the preseason projections.

The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly asked state and federal governments to declare a fisheries failure and economic disaster. 

Assemblyman Brent Johnson, who’s also a set-netter, laid out the factors contributing to the bad harvest at the assembly’s Jan. 19 meeting.

“These fishermen were getting hammered in three ways right there,” he said. “One, they didn’t catch very many of the primary target species: sockeye. Of those sockeye that they did catch, they were smaller than they normally are. And then the price went to pot.”

The state told borough officials it is reviewing the request and will make a decision by the end of the month. The borough sent its request to federal officials this week.

The 2021 forecast projects a Kenai River run of 2,325,000 sockeye. That’s over a million fewer than the 20-year average.

The run projection for the Kasilof River is 881,000. That’s down from the 20-year average of 986,000.

For the Susitna River, the forecast is looking up: 436,000 from the 20-year average of 377,000. Fish Creek is up to 92,000 fish from an average of 86,000.

Fishermen are waiting on the chinook preseason forecast for more insight on how the upcoming season will go. Low king runs last year added insult to injury for Cook Inlet anglers.

Correction: A previous version of this story said that the borough has not received a response from the state on its October request. The state emailed a response to borough officials on Jan. 8, 2021. The story has since been corrected.

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