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Fish and Game: Anglers can no longer take kings home this season in the Nushagak

A king salmon (top) and a sockeye on the deck of a tender. July 13, 2021.
Hope McKenney
A king salmon (top) and a sockeye on the deck of a tender. July 13, 2021.

King fishing in the Nushagak district moves to catch and release with no bait for the rest of the season.

A new emergency order from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game means that sport fishermen will not be taking home kings for the rest of the season.

The order went into effect Wednesday, July 3, 2024. It will remain in place through the end of July. The order limits king salmon fishing in the Nushagak district to catch and release with no bait.

The order follows the management guidelines laid out in the Nushagak King Action Plan; the goal is to protect declining king populations. Before this, anglers were allowed to catch four kings each season, including one larger fish of 28 inches or more.

The order has resulted in canceled trips ahead of the Fourth of July weekend, according to Brian Craft of Alaska Sportsman’s Lodge, who runs a campsite on the Nushagak.

“They've planned this trip a year out, and they're bringing their family up here to specifically go catch up kings, and they want to take one fish home per person, one lousy fish. And now they can't do that,” said Craft. “It's hard, and people definitely balk at it.”

Lee Borden, sport fishing management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game, says he made the order based on the requirements of the Nushagak King Action Plan, which is in place to protect declining king populations.

“You know, ultimately it's done for conservation. So, you know, I would hope that we get quite a few fish on the spawning grounds and we can turn this thing around,” Borden said.

The plan set a minimum goal for the number of fish that make it up the river to spawn. That goal is already low compared to the historical average. But for the past five years, the run has come in even lower.

“It's still a downward trend. Last time the escapement goal was met was in 2018. And since then, we've been missing the escapement goal every year,” Borden said.

The Board of Fisheries created the action plan. It sets a target king escapement of 55 thousand to 120 thousand fish.

“So when we are not projecting to reach the 55,000, then we are called to restrict to catch release,” Borden said.

Borden says they waited to watch the winds last week before making a decision.

“Generally speaking, you'll get a big push of kings with the weather,” Borden said. “Once we got those numbers and things were not looking good on the projections, we decided it was time to take some action.”

Tim Sands is an area management biologist for the Nushagak district. He says they’re also managing closures under the plan for the commercial sockeye fishery.

“Before the action plan was put in place, we would have been fishing by June 21. We waited till the afternoon of June 26 and saved well over 10,000 kings by waiting—at the cost of two million sockeye escaped that we didn't fish on. We continue to take action, having closures every tide to allow periods where there's no gear in the water for fish to come through,” Sands said.

Chris Carr, who runs the general store and lodge in Portage Creek, says the sport fishing order came as a surprise.

“The fishing was fantastic. People were saying that it was like the old days. And the good news is, too, that we were seeing bigger fish. And it just seems like they've missed the count this year, that more fish went up than were counted,” Carr said.

Sands says he also heard good reports of kings this year from subsistence fishers. But the way the action plan is written, the escapement numbers are based on projections from the Nushagak river sonar. He says the sonar only gives an estimate, and biologists know that it is less reliable for tracking kings when lots of sockeye in the river block the view.

Sands says biologists are starting to compare those sonar numbers with what’s reported by anglers to better understand the king run.

“One day last week, our sonar count was 2600 fish,” Sands said, “and fishermen caught 2600 fish in the river. So that would make you think that they caught every single King that went by the sonar that day. And clearly that's not possible.”

Department research biologist Stacy Vega says information from anglers is used to estimate escapement at the end of the season, along with flyover surveys and for the first time this year, data from weirs upstream.

But Vega also says that during the season, when people see more kings, it is hard to know if that means a large run or just an early run. During the season, it is also hard to tell how commercial closures impact what anglers see up river.

Sands says it is possible that angler survey data could be used for in season decisions in the future. That would be up to the board of fisheries. For now, even if the sonar is off by thousands of fish, it is the decision making tool that biologists are mandated to use.

(Correction July 4,204: A previous version of this story said that the order went into effect July 23, 2024. It went into effect July 3, 2024.)

Meg Duff is a fisheries reporter for KDLG's Bristol Bay Fisheries Report. She is also a freelance journalist, writing and making audio stories for publications like Scientific American, MIT Technology Review, Outside, Slate and Yale Climate Connections. Meg has a master's in journalism from New York University.