Kings: Salmon Conservation
Story by Dave Atcheson
Kings: Managing Dwindling Stocks of Alaska’s State Fish
As many are aware, the “good old days” of king-salmon fishing on the Kenai weren’t that long ago. One of my most memorable was spent with my nephew, who was 12 at the time. He’s 24 now. Alaska had just begun to see a slight decline in Chinook numbers and size then, something we figured was just a natural fluctuation. Nevertheless, we set out on that typical June evening with the eternal optimism and hope of all fishers, but also with the tempered expectations that experienced king fishers know especially well. That’s because even in the best of times, king fishing is often a waiting game. Chinook are counted in the thousands, not the millions, or tens of millions, like their smaller cousins, the sockeye.
Catching one here was always an iffy proposition. Still, it was a spring ritual, for many an obsession; one I have chosen, due to declining numbers, to deprive myself of for the last several seasons. For someone that hasn’t experienced a Kenai king, it is difficult to imagine the sweet panic and boundless awe it inspires, testing the fisherman and his equipment to their very core. It is for all these reasons that the king, the state fish of Alaska, is so cherished.
But none of that was on our minds as we approached a spot I knew well, laying out an elaborate array of gear, maneuvering the drift boat into place and beginning to settle in for what we expected would be a long but pleasant ride down the river. Yet after only a few deep pulls on the oars, it happened. Like a lightning strike, the rod in front of my nephew lurched forward, a takedown so savage it actually rocked the boat, catapulting us into the excitement and insanity that every king angler craves—the strain on the rod so tremendous it can barely be pried from its holder. Then, rowing for all you are worth, a chaotic chase, a feeble attempt to keep up, all played to the frantic tune of a squealing reel.
On this day my nephew would land and release three fish: a couple in the 50-pound category, which back then was common, and one monster that we estimated to be about 80 pounds. We would also experience several takedowns and hook-ups and reach the end of our float with a 30-pound male in the box. We knew this kind of action was rare, but king season was upon us and we thought the fun would never end…
Unfortunately, today it is rare to start the season without precautionary restrictions in place—often no retention of kings. A few seasons the river has even been closed to king fishing altogether, and not just the Kenai. The streams of the lower Kenai Peninsula—Deep Creek, the Ninilchik and Anchor rivers—which once teemed with large numbers of small kings and had runs so strong you could almost count on firing up the grill on the evening of the first openers—saw added restrictions. Runs in southeast Alaska and on Kodiak Island have also seen diminishing returns, as they have in northern Cook Inlet. In fact, Chinook stocks all up and down the west coast, California to Alaska, have been suffering.
The Search for Answers
At first, most biologists insisted it was part of a seasonal downturn, but as the years have multiplied many are now scratching their heads in search of other answers. Is this decline just a longer, natural occurrence or is it the result of factors such as overfishing, trawler bycatch, habitat degradation, climate change, or is it a combination of many elements?
“Of course, we are still hoping it’s cyclical,” said Jim Hasbruck, Chief Fisheries Scientist for ADF&G. “But we’ll begin to see an uptick in numbers, even in-season, and then it won’t pan out.”
Hasbruck did mention a few bright spots, mostly in western Alaska, such as the Nushagak, which continues to see decent returns. Similarly, the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers, which saw devastating crashes in Chinook numbers, have fared better the last couple of seasons.
Hasbruck agrees with other biologists, however, that there are likely a variety of factors involved in the nearly statewide decline, factors such as ocean carrying capacity and increased competition from hatcheries, for example. Scientists also point to marine pollution, ocean acidification, as well as climate change and the effect of warming trends on both king salmon and their food sources.
What can Anglers do?
Due to a tightening Alaska budget, no new king research is likely to be undertaken by state agencies, though they will continue monitoring stocks with an eye toward management. Several universities continue research, some working with the state and with federal agencies.
Based on these uncertainties, and a long view of the issue, many resident anglers and guides have taken it upon themselves to take action to curb their impact on increasingly rare king salmon. Studies have proven that catch-and-release tactics work, and in-river king salmon can usually recover and spawn after being caught. A 1991 study by ADF&G that tracked caught-and-released king salmon in the Kenai River showed mortality rates as low as 6%. This low mortality was achieved even though many of the fish were caught on bait, and/or treble hooks, and were handled long enough to install radio transmitters. With today’s anglers restricted to a single hook, and often no bait, plus a better understanding of how to catch-and-release large kings thanks to organizations like Fish for the Future, mortality of released Kenai kings today is quite possibly lower.
Numerous Kenai River guides have begun encouraging their clients to release king salmon back into the river to spawn and contribute to the next generation. Similar efforts have also taken hold on the Susitna, where some lodges now offer fish boxes full of sockeye for guests who release king salmon. Fish for the Future has gained popularity on the Kenai by advocating for a variety of conservation measures for kings and offers prizes in a variety of categories for released kings. Many clients increasingly seek out guides that practice catch-and-release and want to release big kings.
Fortunately, despite the downturn in king numbers, Alaska remains one of the all-time great fishing destinations, with most other salmon stocks, as well as freshwater species, doing quite well. For the most part, our rivers still have all the ingredients to make world-class salmon runs: clean and cool water that flows free from its headwaters to the ocean. However, with a growing population and continued urbanization, and with projects such as the controversial Pebble Mine being considered, Alaskans, and all those who fish our waters, are right to be concerned.
The last thing anyone wants to see who cares about the last and perhaps greatest intact wild salmon and trout fisheries in the world, is a repeat of what has occurred to fish stocks elsewhere.
This blog originally appeared as the Conservation column titled ‘Managing Dwindling Stocks of Alaska’s State Fish” in the May 2020 issue of Fish Alaska.