State will close most of Cook Inlet to king salmon sportfishing

The state is shutting down most summer king salmon sportfishing around Cook Inlet amid continued declines in the strong, hard-running fish that not that long ago filled freezers and fueled tourism in the state’s most populated region.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game last Thursday announced an unprecedented array of restrictions and closures on sport and personal-use fishing from the Kenai Peninsula to the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, a sweeping series of emergency regulations that illustrates the severity of king salmon population crashes and the broader salmon crisis playing out across the state.

The regulations mark the region’s most restrictive preseason orders yet after 15 years of decreasing populations, according to Mike Booz, the state’s Homer-based Cook Inlet sportfish area manager.

“These decisions aren’t made lightly,” Booz said last Friday.

The return predictions and fishing restrictions are based on escapement goals, or the number of returning fish that biologists estimate are needed to spawn and keep populations healthy.

The emergency regulations go into effect in May and extend through the end of July. The list of closures includes early and late king runs on the Kenai River as well as other areas.

One of the Kenai River closures triggers a shutdown of the commercial setnet fleet that targets sockeye salmon on the east side of the inlet, state biologists said. The order also closes a commercial drift gillnet fishery off the Kenai.

A handful of areas remain open to catch kings, including troll fishing out of Homer, limited to one fish rather than two.

Guide Brian Ritchie said his Homer-based charter company was emailing clients with summer salmon or salmon-halibut trips to make it clear they’d be limited to one king instead of two.

“I don’t think people are going to change their bookings,” Ritchie said, adding he expected a little griping, as happens whenever a resource gets limited. “We’re not going to push back because we want to be conservative, but our clients definitely will.”

Cook Inlet kings are returning in lower numbers — and are smaller — than before, an ongoing problem that state biologists largely attribute to ocean conditions, a broad category that can involve climate change leading to warmer water as well as salmon scooped up by trawl nets and competition with other fish including hatchery-raised salmon.

 

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