The Alaska Department of Fish and Game on Friday issued an emergency order prohibiting the use of bait in the Kenai River beginning at 12:01 a.m. Monday and extending through the close of the fishery at 11:59 p.m. on July 31.
From regulatory markers at the outlet of Skilak Lake, downstream to the Kenai River's mouth, sport fishing gear will be limited to not more than one unbaited, single-hook artificial lure. Bait may not be used in this 50-mile stretch of river when fishing for any species.
According to a Fish and Game press release, indices used to measure king salmon escapement indicate a run that is well below average. Fish and Game does not expect escapement goals to be achieved, warranting the restriction.
"It is going to reduce the efficiency of the sport anglers in order to put more fish (upriver) needed for escapement," said Robert Begich, Fish and Game area management biologist.
Fishing for king salmon without bait reduces catching efficiency by about half, said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
The last time bait fishing in the river was prohibited was in 1998, Begich said, when the river was also later restricted to catch-and-release only, but did not close.
Begich said closing the river to bait fishing is a rare occurrence for the late run of king salmon.
On average, Fish and Game looks to have a sustainable escapement goal of 17,800 to 35,700 king salmon, however, this year's numbers will not meet that without additional restrictions, Begich said.
As of Friday, the cumulative ELSD sonar estimate places king salmon escapement at 21,650 this year, but Fish and Game considers that number high. The net apportioned sonar estimate places the count at 12,526.
The bait closure, Begich said, "suits what we have seen and what we are anticipating to see for the remainder of the season."
"If we needed to do more, we would have done it," he said. "At this time, we are anticipating that we will be able to finish up the season with this being the only restriction."
However, Begich said conditions could change.
As of Friday, sport fisherman had harvested 4,786 king salmon from the lower Kenai River, according to statistics. In 2010 by the same time, that number was almost half at 2,561 and 5,479 in 2009.
Escapement goals were also not achieved in 2009 and 2010.
"Having three consecutive years below the goal range is very detrimental to having future quality fisheries," Begich said.
Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman's Coalition, which advocates for the interests of private anglers, said he supports the bait closure.
"We think that the king runs on the Kenai River are really in trouble and we don't support continuing things that might be harmful for the resource for the benefit of the tourism industry," he said. "For us, it is resource-first."
Greg Brush, a Soldotna resident who has been a full-time guide on the Kenai for 22 years, said he and guides in general are pro-conservation, and in favor of "any necessary management decision or tool that is in the best interest of the kings and the resource."
"More importantly than the short term economic effect, we want the resource to be successful, to succeed for our children," he said. "We are in favor of any management decision, if it's necessary. But what we can't understand and what we can't support is a management decision against one user group and not another."
Brush said he was disheartened to hear that set-netters will be allowed to continue fishing and catching kings just outside the river while sport fishermen are prohibited from using bait.
He said that action "will harvest many more kings than we would with bait, but yet the in-river sport angler is handcuffed by not using bait."
"What do you think kills more kings, a single hook with bait or many, many thousands of feet of set-net?" he said.
"Whatever savings we make up in the river are going to be lost out on the east side set net fishery because they are being directed to fish harder and more often to harvest this very high return of sockeye salmon," he said.
Begich said there are not equal response actions built into the commercial Cook Inlet fishery plans, unless the in-river king salmon sport fishery closes.
If the river does close, "then kings trump all and they have to close," he said.
Bill Davis, owner of Salmon Catcher Lodge in Kenai, said he was frustrated with management of the king fishery. He said it's already difficult to attract clients during the month of June, and current management actions are "killing July."
"I'm stuck between the devil and the deep," Davis said.
Fish and Game reminded anglers that catch-and-release restrictions remain in place from regulatory markers 300 yards downstream from Slikok Creek, upstream to Skilak Lake, and in the Moose River from its confluence with the Kenai River upstream to the Sterling Highway bridge. In that area, only king salmon less than 20 inches or greater than 55 inches in length may be retained. King salmon between 20 and 55 inches may not be possessed, retained or removed from the water and must be released immediately.
Will Morrow contributed to this report.