Kenai River sockeye run over-escaped by 1 million fish

People in aders in a large river fishing with poles
Fishermen on the Kenai River in July 2021. (Lex Treinen / Alaska Public Media)

Nearly 2.5 million late-run sockeye are projected to pass through the Kenai River by the end of the month, over-escaping the river by over 1 million fish.

Those numbers concern fishermen like Joe Dragseth, a drift-netter in Kenai. He said he worries about the health of the river. And, he said, it’s unfair commercial fishermen have been restricted while so many fish have made it up the river.

“Basically, they’re taking the living away from us,” he said.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game sets both in-river and sustainable escapement goals for the run each season. The philosophy is returns will be best if the run falls between those goalposts.

This season, and the last several seasons, the sockeye run has surpassed the upper limit of those goals.

This year, the department set an in-river escapement goal of 1 million to 1.2 million for the run. Now, it’s projecting 2.4 million fish will pass through the sonar at mile 19 of the Kenai River by the end of the month.

For Kenai Peninsula set-netters, who’ve had abbreviated fishing seasons due to “paired restrictions” with the Kenai River king run, it’s been particularly hard to watch.

“Seeing that many fish pass our beach is painful. It’s incredibly painful,” said Eric Nyce, of Anchorage, who setnets out of Salamatof.

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He said set-netters could have helped harvest that sockeye run.

But he only had five days to fish this season — and the last couple seasons. Fish and Game closes his fishery early when late-run Kenai king numbers are low.

“The Board of Fish has made it abundantly clear that they care about the minimum escapement of the king run over whatever else happens with the sockeye run,” Nyce said. “But the hard part of that is they made the minimum escapement so high it’s almost impossible to achieve.”

Brian Marston is Fish and Game’s area manager for Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries. He said the department is following the management plans set by the Board of Fish.

“So (over-escapement of sockeye) is one potential ramification of the king salmon escapement goals being favored over sockeye salmon goals, as listed in the plan,” Marston said.

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He said it will take a few years for the offspring of the overescaped sockeye runs to mature and return to really know how the numbers will impact salmon yields going forward.

The last two years also saw late-run sockeye numbers that went high above escapement goals.

“The different curves that we use to predict yield would suggest that when we go over our escapement goal, that we increase the likelihood that we will get lower yields in the future,” Marston said.

That’s in part because the higher density a fish population gets, the more competition there is for food among rearing fish.

That’s what worries Nyce.

“I think there’s plenty of data showing that if you put a reasonable amount of fish in the river you get great returns,” he said. “Which is really what everyone wants.”

Marston said there are some unknowns about how future sockeye runs will be impacted by recent over-escapements, since the department hasn’t always dealt with such high numbers in the Kenai River. He said the department will be watching how many fish come back in the next few years and will use that information to calculate escapement goals and yield in the future.

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