23 July 2022
Salmon nets on the east side of Cook Inlet sat on the beach while drifters and tens of thousands of dip netters and anglers lined the river shoulder-to-shoulder to fish the top of the sockeye runs in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
“Every single user group is fishing at maximum capacity now,” says Ken Coleman, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, in Soldotna. As of July 24, Coleman and dozens of other land-based family businesses had fished only three days, and other operations in the harvest district north of him only fished two.
“It’s frustrating, annoying — pick an adjective,” Coleman says.
The Cook Inlet sockeye run begins in June and typically peaks between July 17 and the end of the month. Nets fishing south of the Kasilof River had fished six openings, but for Coleman and his neighbors, whose sites are near the Kenai River, restrictions to protect dwindling chinook returns have plagued fishing opportunities since 2012.
A fishery notice from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on July 20 opened the offshore area at Cook Inlet, but said no permanent net openings would be forthcoming unless the number of chinook passing the sonar in the river improves.
Coleman blames politics for the closures, saying biology would support set net openings for the beleaguered group.
Set nets along the entire east side of Cook Inlet had caught 32 chinooks in the 2022 season. Meanwhile, the fish run in the Kasilof River was at 568,703 sockeyes and was expected to hit 926,000, nearly triple the 140,000 to 320,000 optimal for the river system to support spawning. On July 21, there was a sonar record of 67,243 sockeyes in a single day.
In the Kenai River, the escape had reached 519,000 sockeye per July 20, with a total expected release of 1.7 million to 2.4 million. A subsequent press release from ADF&G estimated that the leak would hit 2.3 million.
The sonar that counts sockeye salmon is located 19 miles upriver. Drift nets and set nets have long contested the placement of the sonar as a tactic to ensure that a host of sockeye have made it past their nets and into the lower river to appease dip net and angler interests.
“It’s a shame it’s politics over biology,” says Coleman, who has fished the same beach for 53 years. He believes that all the protection measures for chinooks are a facade that masks real motives to get more sockeyes in the rivers for other user groups.
“They’re all designed to hold fixed nets on the beach,” he says.
On 21 July, ADF&G opened the dipnet 24 hours a day, effective from 22 July to 31 July. That same day, the bag limit for upriver anglers was increased from three sockeyes to six for the remainder of July. As of July 22, the total commercial harvest for the entire Cook Inlet fleet was 946,951 sockeye.