For the first time in recent memory, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed sport fishing for sockeye salmon in the Saltery River drainage, one of the largest sport fisheries on Kodiak Island.
“An apparently weak run and low water conditions has resulted in low escapement into Saltery Lake,” Tyler Polum, a management biologist with the department, said in a press release. He was referring to the amount of salmon allowed to escape the harvest and swim upriver to spawn.
“It is unlikely at this point that the escapement goal will be achieved in the near future,” he said.
While the closure is likely to last for the duration of the season, if large numbers of sockeye begin appearing, the department could reopen the river to sockeye fishing.
As of Monday, only 6,848 salmon had been counted at the Saltery Creek weir, which is the lowest count on record, according to a department press release.
Polum said the sockeye run at Saltery has been historically strong. However, over the last two years the river has seen fewer sockeye than previous years, as well as low water levels, prompting the department to decrease the amount of fish allowed to be harvested.
Despite the dry spell, Polum said that during the past two seasons Kodiak saw increased levels of rainfall and more fish were counted at the end of July and the beginning of August, allowing the Saltery River to stay open to anglers.
This year, however, precipitation has been sporadic around the island: While rain fell around town earlier this month, Saltery remained dry.
The lack of rain, and the resulting low water levels, have caused some sockeye to hold up in the bay or lower parts of the river, where the water is deeper and the fish have more space.
“With the rain we had last night and the rain we have the forecast, if a whole bunch of fish came up we would open,” he said on Tuesday, noting that the current number of fish counted is less than half of the escapement goal.
“We’d have to count a lot of fish at this point. If we count about 10,000 reds at the weir, we would consider reopening it,” Polum said, adding that sockeye runs typically start winding down mid-August in Saltery.
The department closely manages Saltery River because of its importance to the community.
“It's the only place on the island where the sport fishery is bigger than the commercial and subsistence fisheries,” he said.
He said the sport fishery has harvested up to 10,000 fish out of the river, whereas the subsistence and commercial harvest is much smaller at Saltery River.
Polum said Saltery’s sport fishing can have a big impact on the salmon population in the river, compared to other smaller rivers that have smaller harvest limits and are less accessible.
“The Saltery sockeye salmon fishery is one of Kodiak’s most popular sport fisheries and the largest sport fishery on the island for harvest for a single river,” he said in the press release.
While anglers might miss out on sockeye sport fishing at Saltery, they can still try their luck at harvesting pink and silver salmon. Polum said silver salmon are already starting to show up, with a run that peaks mid-September.