Kenai River king salmon conservation plan adopted by Board of Fish

Les Anderson stands by his world-record king salmon in 1985. (KTUU)

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - Friday the Alaska Board of Fisheries approved a plan to put more large king salmon into the Kenai River in an effort to restore the legendary fishery.

“We all know there’s less of them. We all know they’re getting smaller. So I think it’s this board’s responsibility to protect this,” board member Israel Payton said.

The proposal originally submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association went through several iterations before the board voted. The board, stakeholders including commercial setnet fishermen, professional guides and sportfishermen and the Department of Fish and Game spent several hours Thursday and Friday to craft compromise.

The approved plan directs ADF&G to manage the late-run Kenai River king salmon for an optimal escapement goal of 15,000 to 30,000 fish. That is an increase from the previous sustainable escapement goal range of 13,500 to 27,000 fish.

The proposal includes revised restrictions that would apply to both the commercial sockeye fishery and sport fishery based on how far under the 15,000 goal the run is projected to be.

To help achieve the optimal escapement goal and provide a reasonable harvest opportunity, ADF&G may issue an executive order that allows anglers to only keep king salmon less than 34 inches long. Fish over that limit would have to be released. The original proposal called for that maximum size limit to be 36 inches, but the length was changed, making the regulatory limit the same as the size guidelines the department uses to differentiate its count of large king salmon from the count of all fish.

“That’ll be interesting to see how it’s applied,” KRSA executive director Ben Mohr said. “The other thing that we’re proud of is this protects kings over the entire course of the run from late June through August. When the runs are challenged, everybody’s sharing in the work of conservation.”

The main point of discussion among the board was when and where to restrict commercial sockeye fishing.

“It’s an abundance based fishery. We have to have time, and we have to have area and we have to have fish. And we just lost some time and area,” setnet fisherman Brent Johnson said. “You could have all these restrictions, have a large bunch of sockeye come and maybe we do better. Or, a more likely scenario is that the department will run into king salmon escapement goals, we’ll be falling short of that goal and we’ll be closed like we were in 2012 and people on North K-beach fished one day all year.”

The business Johnson runs with his wife typically hires around 15 crew to help run three skiffs and shore operations.

“We’ll have to take a hard look at all this and talk to the crew and say, ‘hey, I’m expecting instead of the site grossing $250,000 or $300,000, it’s going to gross $150,000 or $200,000. And so you have to make up your mind if you want to come work for me at the same percentage we’re paying,’ So yeah, it has a big impact,” Johnson said.

Five board members voted in favor of the proposal. Fritz Johnson and John Jensen voted no.

“That opportunity to harvest a world-record thing - what sets Alaska aside from everywhere else in the world - it’s the Kenai River king salmon. I want everyone’s kids, grandkids to have the opportunity to expect to go fishing on the Kenai River and potentially catch a new world-record king salmon. That should never go away based on some foregone harvest of another species,” board member Payton said.”

While Johnson says that the restrictions could hurt business and he thinks there were some time and area restrictions that could have been left out of the revised management plan, he understands the intention.

“I just am too old to worry,” Johnson said. “I’m just going to accept whatever happens, and it’s a democratic process and we’ll do our part to try to make the world a better place to live, and we’ll do our part to get king salmon in the river.”

You can read the full language of the approved changes here.

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