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King Salmon Fishery Challenges

by Phillip Manning ~ June 12th, 2013

The Susitna River valley is home to Alaska’s fourth largest run of king salmon.  In recent years, however, escapement numbers have been in decline.  Escapement is the estimate of the number of spawning fish, and is used to determine fishing restrictions for each fishery.  Poor numbers caused an early closure of the king salmon, fishery in 2012, and led to emergency orders this year that significantly restrict the ability to harvest king salmon.

In the Upper Susitna Valley, all of the drainages of the Susitna River are limited to catch-and-release fishing.  The one exception is the Deshka River and drainages of the Yentna River.  Details of the restrictions are available at the Alaska Fish and Game website.  The restrictions put a significant burden on the sport fishing guides operating in the Susitna Valley.  I spoke with Talkeetna guide Todd Kingery, who says that he tends to prefer catch-and-release in general.

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“I know the numbers aren’t going to be spectacular.  I know they’ve been decreasing in the last five years.  I don’t know if the catch-and-release–I’ve actually lost a few reservation charters because it’s been catch-and-release, but everybody knows as well that if you do catch one and keep it, you’re done fishing anyway.  So it’s better off to just go catch-and-release somewhat, and then it keeps you fishing.”

In addition to restrictions by Alaska Fish and Game, the late break-up of river ice and the resulting high water have imposed their own difficulties.  Guides were unable to safely take clients to area rivers until the waters began to recede, and lack of clarity in the water continues to make fishing difficult.

Alaska Fish and Game has also encountered difficulties related to late ice and high water.  Sam Ivey, Area Manager for Fish and Game, says that the delay in river thaw set back the schedule for installing equipment for monitoring fish runs.

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“Within this year, it was late by a couple of weeks, which set us back a little bit as far as trying to get our gear in the water in the form of weirs and a couple of places we had picked out for sonar units.  Normally we’re able to get  in the water by mid-May, and our main Deshka River project up and running by the 22nd, and this year we weren’t able to get it into the water until two weeks later.”

The weirs and sonar units are placed in waterways and used to count the number of fish actually passing through the area.  Those numbers give both sport fisherman and Fish and Game vital information when it comes to the harvest and conservation of king salmon.  There are plans to place weirs in new spots in the Northern Cook Inlet area, and the Little Susitna has a weir in place for the first time since 1995 as Fish and Game attempts to get data as early in the salmon run as possible.  Sam Ivey says that this year is going to provide unique challenges due to the unusual river conditions for this time of year.

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“It’s a very unusually spring that we’re having.  It’s challenging to manage fisheries surrounding that, but that’s what you’re dealt.  That’s the way of Mother Nature.”

Only time and a lot of counting will determine the future of the 2013 king salmon season.

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