High Tech Trackers Gather Info On Cook Inlet Kings, Reds

The Alaska Board of Fish will begin deliberations on the Cook Inlet fisheries in Anchorage next week. One of the more difficult issues before the board is the declining King salmon runs and demands by sports fishing interests to shut down the commercial catch of reds to let every precious king into the Kenai River system.

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In Cook Inlet, the  statewide decline of King Salmon has raised the long running Cook Inlet Fish Wars between commercial and sports fishermen to a fever pitch.

Last summer east side setnetters became the latest casualty as their fishery was shut down by a fish board dominated by sports fishermen.

In the middle of that battle, working almost unnoticed was a group of scientists wielding high tech tools.  David Welch’s company “Kintama”  deployed receivers and inserted internal radio tags into two species of Cook Inlet salmon: the  Sockeye reds targeted by commercial fishing fleet and the Chinook Kings treasured by sports fishermen to gather data on where these fish are as they swim to spawning grounds in the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers.

“Well, it’s basically the size of a tube of lipstick,” Welch said.

Last week Welch presented an animated map showing the path the salmon took.  The data he gathered documented in real time how far each tagged fish was from shore and how deep it swam.  Fish biologists have know for a long time that Chinooks prefer the bottom and sockeyes like the surface, but till now they have not had hard data.

On the map, the tagged sockeyes marked in red swam off shore till they got close to the river’s mouth and then they would home in.

“My suspicion is that the sockeye are found even further off shore, but of course we don’t have data beyond where we have the instruments,” Welch said. “But then when they are coming into the Kenai River they move quite quickly into the Kenai.”

That behavior contrasted with the Chinooks who stayed close to shore and tended to hang out there for 20 days before making a dash into the river.

“On a flood tide basically so they probably get away from seals and other predators that are waiting at the river mouth,” Welch said.

Welch’s study is good news for the Cook Inlet drift fishermen because it shows little potential for Chinook interception in their fishery, but the picture for east side setnetters is less clear.

There’s a big problem in Welch’s work. There were no receivers in the mile and a half segment right off the shore where setnets sites are located.

“We can do that but we just didn’t have enough time to build the equipment that’s needed cause that a very tough area,” Welch said. “It’s very shallow, big tides, big waves, so we have to build specialized containers for the receivers so they’ll survive long enough.”

Welch hopes the state will give him the money to capture better fish behavior data to help resolve the allocation battles in Cook Inlet to the benefit of all Human users.

“One of the things we hope we can do is to use the depth data so that the sockeye fishermen can design their nets so they can catch the sockeye while minimizing interceptions of Chinooks,” Welch said. “So hopefully we can put the data on the table so the folks can sit down and figure out what might be done.”

Until now, no one has bothered to ask the salmon what they think of the Fish Wars but there may be a hint in Welch’s study, which found two Kings that wanted no part of it.  They head out as far and as fast as they could.

“We got a call while we were still out tagging that it was caught in Uyak bay in the northern part of Kodiak Island,” Welch said.

The other rogue King headed south where he was found two months later in the mouth of Columbia River.

Johanna Eurich is a contributor for the Alaska Public Radio Network.

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