Due to significantly low preseason forecasts, Alaska Department of Fish and Game closes Cook Inlet king salmon sport fishing

    "King Salmon" by Dave Bezaire is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

    Cook Inlet, Alaska (KINY) - One closure sends a "ripple" effect, closing other fisheries around the same area. News of the North talked with ADF&G for more information.

    Matt Miller is with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Sport Fish. He is the Fish and Game Coordinator for Cook Inlet.

    He spoke with News of the North regarding fishery closures around Cook Inlet, which was issued on Thursday, Mar. 9.

    "We issued a series of emergency orders last Thursday restricting and closing king salmon sport fisheries around Cook Inlet. We've seen that king salmon stocks across Alaska experience low productivity for several years. Cook Inlet is no exception out there. We've been doing restrictions to those fisheries for the last several years in one way or another," he said. "We had just got our forecast for the 2023 season looking ahead how many king salmon we anticipate to come back and it didn't look good. So based on the preseason forecasts for king salmon throughout Cook Inlet, the department made some preseason restrictions."

    This is the goal they are seeking to meet.

    "There's a goal on the Kenai River king salmon late run of how many fish we'd like to see come back and spawn. It's an escapement goal and that goal is 15,000 to 30,000 king salmon, large king salmon. Our forecast was for 13,630. We're significantly under," he said.

    Why are we seeing this low productivity in king salmon? There is no one answer, Miller replied, but there may be one primary issue.

    "People want to point to one thing or another, that's habitat, or it's overfished. It's the river fishermen, it's the commercial fisherman, it's whales, it's predation, it's global warming. All sorts of issues will come up and frankly, it's likely all of those things are adding to the stress mortality of the kings," Miller said. "The department has done some studies over the past several years. I believe some studies out of Southeast and out of the Yukon were both suggesting that the primary issue is nearshore survival. So after the king smolt out, as young fish, they leave the freshwater system and go out into the ocean. They'll spend some time in nearshore waters eating, feeding, and getting bigger before they go out into deeper water. There seems to be a mortality issue there higher than we've seen in our expecting."

    Below: Many Alaskans rely on fishing as a resource. (King Salmon by Andy Blackledge is licensed under CC BY 2.0. This photo was taken in the Kenai area in 2020.)

    "These are not easy decisions to restrict or close these fisheries. I mean, the department realizes how important these fisheries are to Alaskans and all the users who come up and fish and enjoy the resources. But they're consistent with the management plans adopted by the Alaska Board of Fisheries and principles of sustained fisheries management, so we need to take them," Miller added. "So when the sport fisheries are closed in the Kenai River for that late run, it also closes the salt waters north of the latitude of Bluff Point to the taking of king salmon. It also prohibits dip netters using that personal use fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River from retaining king salmon, so they can't contain kings. Then it also goes over and impacts commercial fisheries."

    Even though they have taken these actions preseason to be conservative as they start into these fisheries, ADF&G will be monitoring the king salmon and other fisheries throughout the season.

    If the numbers are coming back higher than they had forecasted, and it looks like they will meet their goals, they will ease the restrictions and allow more opportunities to fish.

    One of the ways for the public to be aware of what's happening is on the ADF&G website, Miller said, specifically, the page for press releases and emergency orders.

    He encouraged anyone who's going to go fishing to check that website to see the latest news on the fishery or sign up for announcements on specific fisheries.

    Miller said there is a sonar program on the Kenai River to assess king salmon.

    The goal is based on large kings.

    A first step might be opening a catch-and-release fishery for king salmon, and if the numbers look like they will meet the goal, anglers can help by making sure they are doing best practices.

    Miller said if the fishery does open back up, fishermen can help by doing the best practices for a successful release of that fish; using appropriate gear, releasing the fish safely, and being careful in netting and handling the fish.

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