Kenai Late-run King Mismanagement.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has the monumental job of managing the fisheries of the largest state—by far—in the country. They do this in a place with very limited infrastructure and a gigantic amount of real estate and water to cover. They do a great job, almost always, in a really challenging environment, balancing various user groups and a myriad of fisheries. My hats are off to them for the job they do.
But this year, their management, or perhaps more accurately, mismanagement, of the Kenai River’s late run of kings left me and many others dumbfounded. I generally avoid criticizing ADF&G, for I support them and I’m not looking to disparage them. However, in light of this year’s late run of Kenai kings and the actions they took, I feel the need to highlight what happened in the hopes they’ll use more appropriate management tools aimed at increasing Kenai king returns going forward. It’s not my intent to punish; but I want them to know anglers are watching what they do, particularly with regard to fisheries extremely important to sport anglers, like Kenai kings.
Some history will help describe the situation leading up to this year’s debacle. Kenai king runs have been noticeably declining since 2009. Prior to that, from 1986 through 2008, the late-run actual returns ranged from a high of over 91,000 large kings (fish 34 inches long or greater) to a low of roughly 24,000. The average number of returning large late-run kings during this time period was more than 53,000. (ADF&G Memorandum, Kenai River late run Chinook salmon 2021 outlook; Table 1; http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/static/fishing/pdfs/sport/byarea/southcentral/2021KenaiLateRunOutlook.pdf)
2020’s late-run preseason forecast was for roughly 20,700 large kings to return to the river, but only 12,219 did. It was the lowest return of late-run Kenai kings on record. ADF&G’s forecast was way off. I don’t criticize them for that; predicting fish runs is difficult. The point is that the run greatly underperformed, and we are indeed in a period of extremely low abundance, factors that should have been taken into consideration for any 2021 management actions.
Francis Estalilla with a large Kenai hen just prior to release. If we want to see big numbers of kings like this in the Kenai again, the fish managers must use the appropriate conservative tools they have in their toolbox at the appropriate times. Photo by George Krumm
2021’s preseason forecast of late-run kings was even lower than last year’s: 18,400. With “ocean conditions” being the presumed culprit for last year’s poor return, one might think this year’s run might underperform the prediction as well. It does not appear ADF&G considered this; if they did, they dismissed the idea, based on the actions they took at the beginning of this year’s late run.
In mid- to late June, ADF&G announced that the late run of Kenai kings would be managed with bait not allowed, but the harvest of any king allowed. In a period of extremely low abundance, with last year’s late run being the lowest on record, and this year’s forecast being even lower than last year’s, I can only wonder what they were thinking. This management decision to let sport anglers “kill ‘em all” seemed extremely risky, and not conservative or wise in light of the facts available to ADF&G. The only way it could have been worse is if they allowed bait. I emailed them about this on June 24th, questioning their rationale, and pleaded with them to implement more conservative measures, specifically, to implement the mandatory release of large kings (greater than 34 inches in length). They did not take this advice.
On June 30th, the Kenai River Professional Guide Association encouraged it’s guides and their clients via social media to release any large kings despite ADF&Gs regulation allowing them to be kept. On the same day, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association encouraged anglers to limit harvest of kings to fish less than 34 inches. Obviously, other people were concerned, too.
I didn’t get answers to my emailed questions/suggestions until July 7th. The rationale ADF&G gave me for starting the late-run under “sports may kill ‘em all” was they wanted to implement a step-down approach and see what the numbers did. They added that the 2021 early run came in better than last year’s (but it still underperformed, that is, it came in lower than what they had forecasted).
In this period of extreme low abundance, a more conservative, less risky and more prudent approach would have been a step-up approach. That is, to start either with full catch-and-release and no bait, or the slightly less conservative rule to release all large kings and no bait. Then, if the projected numbers based on in-river sonar counts indicated, they could relax the regulations. Why they didn’t do this is difficult to comprehend, and indefensible. They could have. They should have. They had input from several groups and individuals to reconsider a week before July 1st (the opening for late-run kings). Instead, they allowed harvest on a run that was unlikely to make it to the bottom of the escapement goal.
As it turned out, the late run didn’t perform well. On July 14th, ADF&G implemented catch-and-release. On July 21st, they closed the river to king fishing. They subsequently prohibited the use of bait August 1-15 to further minimize king salmon encounters (traditionally, there is no retention of kings in August, but bait can be used to target silvers). Too little. Too late. The return of 2021 late-run Kenai kings turned out to be 11,832 (preliminary sonar count; the final number will likely be higher). If this number stands, it will be a new record-low return. If it goes up, it won’t go up much and will probably be the second-lowest return on record, slightly less awful than last year’s.
ADF&G might take the fatalistic stance that even if they started at CnR on July 1st, they wouldn’t have made it to the bottom of the escapement goal. In hindsight that’s true, but at least 200 to 300 kings were bonked on the head in the sport fishery and however many were killed in commercial gillnets instead of making it to the spawning grounds because they started the late-run season with the “sports may kill ‘em all” rule in place. The point is that the fish must come first, and ADF&G needs to appropriately use all the tools in their toolbox to ensure as many kings as possible make it to the spawning beds until the river’s king runs regularly make it into the middle or upper end of the Optimal Escapement Goal (OEG) range (15,000- to 30,000 large kings).
Chinook like this brute Noel Estalilla is about to release were once not unusual on the Kenai. Photo by Francis Estalilla
ADF&G uses escapement goal ranges to help guide their actions. That’s great, but unfortunately, they seem to shoot for the bottom of the escapement goal range every time when it comes to king salmon. That in itself is risky, and unwise in a situation like the Kenai with its precipitous decline in king salmon numbers. With a run desperately in need of all the help it can get, why not shoot for the upper Optimal Escapement Goal (30,000 large kings) in order to fully seed the gravel? We’ll never make progress rebuilding the Kenai king runs shooting for the bottom of the escapement goal range. I also question why it is that though the late run used to average over 50,000 large kings, why is the upper end of the OEG just 30,000 today? Ah, but that’s a topic for another day.
ADF&G does not seem to manage for the most constraining stock of fish when it comes to the Kenai, which is Kenai kings. It is my belief that they aim for the lowest number in the escapement range for kings (15,000 large kings) to maximize commercial harvest of sockeye salmon. I understand the need for a vibrant commercial sockeye fishery, but the fish must come first. It is a travesty to basically ignore the plight of the Kenai’s kings to continue maximizing commercial sockeye harvest. Let me explain how restrictions on Kenai late-run king sportfishing causes ADF&G to also restrict commercial sockeye fishermen.
Paraphrasing Alaska Administrative Code (5 AAC 21.359), the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan, when sport anglers are restricted to no bait allowed, east side setnetters are automatically limited to no more than 48-hour openings, and all openings will be by Emergency Order (EO). If the sports are further restricted to no bait and retention of fish less than 34 inches only, east side setnetters are limited to 36-hour openings; all openings by EO. If sports are further restricted to no bait and catch-and-release only, the east side setnetters are limited to no more than 24-hour openings, all openings by EO. If the sport king fishery is closed, east side setnetting and certain sections of drift gillnetting are closed. The personal use dipnetters are also affected when restrictions are placed on sport anglers. Basically, if the king run is weak enough that ADF&G implements no bait, personal use dipnetters may no longer harvest any kings.
It appears as though ADF&G doesn’t want to restrict the commercial sockeye fishery if they can avoid it, so they are reluctant to implement the appropriate Kenai late-run king sportfish restrictions, which would trigger the commercial fishing restrictions. It could be that this is why they started the late run of kings allowing sport anglers to “kill ‘em all,” though they didn’t say so to me in their answer on July 7th. Actions speak, though, and perceptions are often reality.
The king salmon is the Alaska state fish. Kenai kings are a very unique population, historically producing extremely large fish that helped put Alaska sportfishing on the map as the world-class sportfishing destination it is. If my recollection is correct, 7 of the 10 largest king salmon ever caught by sport anglers were caught in the Kenai River. The world-record king was caught in the Kenai, at 97 pounds, 4 ounces. Kenai kings are special—an Alaska treasure.
Aside from this year’s careless mismanagement of late-run Kenai kings, my frustration with ADF&G is that even though Kenai king numbers are severely depressed, they continue to “shoot for the bottom” of the Optimal Escapement Goal. They feel they’ve succeeded if they make it to the bottom end of the OEG. However, just making it to the bottom of the OEG is unlikely to build the runs back up to the levels we saw prior to 2009. Returns from the past couple king generations seem to support this. This continued “shooting for the bottom” of the OEG may well cause the continued degradation of Kenai king runs.
If we want to truly rebuild Kenai King runs, ADF&G needs to be shooting for the top of the OEG to put more kings on the spawning beds. This will require a transformation in their way of thinking and doing, but it is what is required. The days of “shooting for the bottom” need to end. We must demand more from ADF&G.
I realize ADF&G has a tough job, trying to maximize commercial harvest in the Inlet while placating sport interests and ensuring healthy stocks of fish for all. I admire their work, by and large. But in my opinion, regarding the Kenai watershed, they need to prioritize for the most constraining stock—Kenai kings. If that means implementing restrictions on sports to ensure as big an escapement as we can get, even though restrictions on king salmon sport anglers will result in restrictions on the commercial fishermen, that is as it should be. That is what ADF&G should have done this year, starting at the beginning of the late run on July 1st.
The result? Lowest return of late-run Kenai kings on record (probably; the numbers aren’t final yet). The 2021 run again did not achieve the lower end of the optimal escapement goal. The late-run kings haven’t achieved the bottom of the OEG range for three years in a row now. Every large king on the gravel is vital to the future of the Kenai’s king run.
The Kenai has been the most intensely fished freshwater destination in Alaska for many years. Kenai kings are known the world over and it’s no secret that the Kenai’s king runs have declined substantially since 2008. Rebuilding the Kenai king runs will require years of time, and prudent management based upon the best science available. This year, the science was ignored or carelessly dismissed by those we trust to manage the resource, despite people reaching out preseason and questioning the dubious actions that were taken by ADF&G. We cannot afford such risky, careless management of Kenai kings if we are ever to rebuild the runs. Hopefully, more appropriate management actions will be taken going forward.
George Krumm is the Editor of both Fish Alaska and Hunt Alaska magazines. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.