The other Kenai king thread was getting a bit long and convoluted, so I thought I'd start another on the eve of what will be the most crucial decision-making point of the entire season. Here's a discussion worthy of posting:
By July 13, typically 25 percent of the final return of the late-run Kenai River king salmon has entered the river. At this point of the return, what does the in-season assessment tell us? How will the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) react to evaluation of the data? What will be the justification for ADFG’s potential management actions?
On July 8 ADFG justified restricting the sportfishery to catch and release beginning July 10 with the following statement:
"To date all indices used to assess the late-run are very low, well below average, and are currently projected to be well under the inseason management objectives at the end of the run in early August. All of this information used in combination indicates the 2012 run is smaller than the 2011 run and may be the lowest on record."
When summarizing the situation on the web update provided July 10, ADFG stated:
"The department is continuing to examine further in-season restrictive actions in a step-down manner to administer during the remainder of July to ensure adequate escapement of Kenai River king salmon. The next step is to close the Kenai River to king salmon fishing and could be announced as soon as Friday, July 13."
On July 11 an Emergency Order issued by ADFG closed a regular period in the commercial set net fishery that was justified by the following statement:
"As of July 11, all indices used to assess in-river abundance of Kenai River king salmon indicate a run that is well below average. In-season projections show all indices will not achieve their respective minimum in-season management objective. Closing the regularly scheduled fishing period for set gillnets in the Upper Subdistrict on Thursday, July 12 is intended to pass king salmon into the Kenai River."
ADFG salmon fishery managers in Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) typically like to assess the first 25 percent of a return of salmon, particularly king salmon, before making management calls that dramatically affect the fishery. With the low numbers of king salmon returning throughout UCI and much of the state this year, ADFG sportfish managers took the unprecedented step of prohibiting the use of bait in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers prior to the start of the late-run of July kings.
The ADFG quotes posted above summarize the assessment of run strength gathered from ADFG indices as the 2012 return has presented itself on the beaches of UCI and in the Kenai River. We now find ourselves at that 25 percent point in the 2012 return and undoubtedly ADFG finds itself facing a number of very tough choices. Five factors that will receive significant consideration by ADFG are:
1. The abundance of late-run Kenai River king salmon as observed in ADFG’s four assessment tools;
2. The utility of catch and release as a management tool for the king salmon sportfishery;
3. The effectiveness of the UCI drift gillnet fleet utilizing additional fishing time in the new expanded corridor that concentrates harvests on Kenai and Kasilof sockeye;
4. The abundance of sockeye salmon along the beaches and in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers; and
5. The harvest potential of a liberalized personal use dipnet fishery and in-river sport fishery for sockeye salmon.
Based on the in-season data and assessment of this data provided by ADFG the remainder of the 2012 season could go down one or more of three paths. These are:
1) Total closure of both the inriver sportfishery and much or all of the commercial set net fishery for the remainder of the late-run Kenai River king salmon return.
2) Keeping the inriver sportfishery restricted to catch and release for a few more days in an effort to make sure that we are not experiencing very late timing of a run that is, in fact, much larger than currently anticipated. Under this scenario we could expect to see some level of commercial set net fishing while additional data is collected. Under this scenario after a few more days, not more than a week, enough data would be collected to make a definitive decision to either close both the sport and commercial set net fisheries or allow the fisheries to continue because ADFG anticipates meeting the minimum escapement objective for Kenai River king salmon.
3) ADFG may conclude that achieving the minimum escapement objective for late-run Kenai River king salmon will most likely not be achieved but that too much economic value is at stake to implement a total closure of the sport and commercial set net fisheries. Under this scenario ADFG would continue to allow catch and release in the river while authorizing some level of commercial set net fishing. In making this call ADFG would be clearly operating outside of compliance with the Late-run Kenai River King Salmon Management Plan which calls for total closure of both fisheries when minimum escapement will not be achieved.
However, there are valid arguments that can be made for this potential course of action. Mortality in a catch and release fishery in the Kenai River for the remainder of the 2012 season will likely be in the range of 100-200 fish. Biologists consider a small number like this to have a de minimus or negligible effect on the sustainability of the run. Under the current management plan, catch and release can only be implemented to buy time early in the season to allow for additional data to be collected or to slow the harvest in the sport fishery so that the minimum escapement objective can be achieved.
A scenario that envisions the use of catch and release fishing while not being able to project meeting the minimum escapement goal would be a new justification for catch and release of king salmon in the Kenai River. Likewise, if the number of late-run king salmon killed by commercial fishermen can be held to a similar small number while the economic value of the sockeye harvest can be realized then sustainability can still be the goal.
Sustainability outside the mgt plan? Really?
To me it all boils down to weak stock management. A conservation concern has been raised for Kenai chinook. All indicators thus far point to a dismal run that will NOT make the escapement objective.... perhaps a management failure that may still occur even with total closure of the river to chinook fishing. Yeah, it's THAT bad! Only a Hail Mary pulse of late fish can change the trajectory of the escapement projection. Given the pattern of chinook run failures statewide, there's little hope for that occurrence.
Since releasing the last Kenai update that resulted in the river going to C&R for chinook, the beach nets have been sitting idle. In fact, apart from two 1/2 day Kasilof openers in the first week in July, there has been no setnetting on Kenai kings. Keeping those setnets high and dry this past Monday and today certainly saved some kings for escapement, but if ADFG was looking to see any indication of a stronger king run by tomorrow, they just lost the only meaningful data points that could have given any shred of credence that the king run has any steam in it at all. Sure the inriver fishery CPUE has picked up a bit.... fueled largely by better viz and ideal tides the past few days.... but it's tough to put a lot of weight on that given the small number of boats still fishing.
So really, NOTHING has really changed to say this run is any better off since the July 8 assessment. Days later, the conservation concern continues to persist. It begs the question, "What is the appropriate course of action tomorrow afternoon?"
From a biological perspective it pits underescaping kings against overescaping reds. Historically, the urgency to maximally fish the strong stock at the expense of the weak stock has been the undeniable legacy of the commercial salmon fishing industry. For me personally, the risk of underescaping a weak stock should trump the risk of overescaping a strong stock. But hey, that's just me.
Then there's the social perpsective. What's really at stake here is the ESSN's and just how sacred managers deem that cash cow to be. The in-river guiding/hospitality industry has also suffered. It's been socially disruptive, and the economic hardship to those folks can't be denied. Closure takes away any hope of salvaging an off year. But we need to consider the conservation implications of allowing both fisheries to operate if we forego the closure option.
It's clear that from an in-river perspective, the difference between closure and C&R for the remainder of the season is 100-200 kings. As much as we'd like to think every king counts, from a savings perspective, that number is pretty dam inconsequential. The later a decision is made to go to closure, the more inconsequential the in-river savings become. Bottom line, if we don't close the in-river fishery now, there really is no point in closing it at all.
On the flip side, the difference of opening/closing in the setnet fishery is HUGE. Each day of setnetting in July would kill hundreds of kings, overshadowing the in-river savings for the entire season. Given the magnitude of the conservation shortfall, why take that risk?
If the available data on July 8 said we aren't gonna make goal, there really is no new data to show that we will. That potential data point was squandered today. Bottom line, if managers are confident enough to project that the chinook goal will not be met, the mgt plan directs ADFG to close the fishery.... which really only leaves one responsible course of action.
Follow the plan.