While the arrival of the valuable king salmon has been late to the Unalakleet and Shaktoolik Rivers – and despite poor chinook runs throughout the State of Alaska – the Alaska Department of Fish and Game forecasts the runs in the Southern Norton Sound to seen an improvement over the past two years. Fish and Game Area Biologist Scott Kent says this year will probably have the latest salmon runs on record. The water temperature in the heart of the Norton Sound is just now starting to rise and they are finally seeing a few salmon enter the Unalakleet River.
There are a number of reasons why Fish and Game forecasts an improvement this season. King salmon are typically out to sea for five years. Kent says Fish and Game had an early closure back in the Unalakleet and Shaktoolik sub districts in 2007.
That year we hit the midpoint of our escapement goal range and the data collected last year showed that that brood year is actually having pretty good survival and good year-class strength.
Kent says there were a lot of four-year-old or jack kings in the Unalakleet and North River, where there are counting towers and one test net.
So we saw a high proportion of four-year-olds and usually you get kind of excited when you start to see that. And that usually bodes well for the next two years since the majority of king salmon return as age five and older – usually age five and six. So we’re thinking it’s going to be improved this year with the hope that we might be able to avoid an early closure to the subsistence king salmon fishery.
However, Kent says that runs throughout the State have come in much lower than forecasted. And – salmon have been slow to show up in the Kuskokwim, Nushagak and Yukon Rivers. On Tuesday – 9000 kings passed the Pilot Station Sonar.
They’re still way below where they want to be. They’re projecting out to be one of the worst runs on record, but it seems to be picking up quite a bit over the last couple of days.
Fish and Game would like to get the runs to a place where 3000 fish can easily hit the fish cutting tables in Unalakleet, with about 1000 in Shaktoolik.
The first immediate goal – what you’re trying to do is meet your escapement needs so you can provide for future returns. And then above that we want to try to get back to where what’s the historical level for customary use and for Unalakleet it’s about 3000.
They’re hopeful to see half of those numbers taken by subsistence users. So far two kings were spotted at the counting tower on the Unalakleet River with a few caught in fishermen’s nets.