What Happened to the Big King Salmon?

Les Anderson landed the largest king salmon ever caught in the Kenai River on May 17th, 1985. Les and a friend were fishing from his boat when he hooked into the monster at 7:00 am, and the rest is a legend. Les and his friend battled the salmon for an hour chasing it up and down the river. Les fell once in the bottom of the boat, and when they finally got the fish near the side of the boat, the net was too small, so they had to tow the salmon to shore and beach it. After all that, Les put the huge salmon in the bottom of the boat while the men continued to fish. Once they were done fishing, Les left the fish in the back of his pickup until 2:00 pm when friends finally convinced him to weigh it. The giant weighed 97 lbs. 4 oz. (44 kg), and many people believe it would have topped 100 lbs. (45.4 kg) if Les had weighed immediately after he caught it.

While Les Anderson’s fish was the largest documented king ever caught in the Kenai, 60-to-80-lb. (27.2-36.2 kg) kings were commonly caught in the river during the 1980s and 90s. Since 2003, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) has required that all king salmon greater than 55 inches (139.7 cm) be sealed by ADF&G within three days of the time they are caught. In the last nine years, only one king salmon over 55 inches has been sealed by the department. This fish was 55.5 (141 cm) inches long and weighed 71.1 lbs. (32.3 kg).

What happened to the huge king salmon in the Kenai and other rivers, and more importantly, why are fewer kings returning to spawn in many areas? In the early 1900s, before the Grand Coulee Dam was built, king salmon weighing more than 100 lbs. (45.4 kg) were frequently harvested from the Columbia River in the Pacific Northwest. Today, kings from the Columbia River average 20 lbs. (9.1 kg). The largest commercially caught king in Alaska was a 126 pounder (57.2 kg) caught in 1949 in a fish trap near Petersburg in Southeast Alaska. Nothing close to that size has been documented since then. Over the past few years, ADF&G has issued emergency fishing closures for numerous king salmon rivers in the state, including the Kuskokwim River in Southwestern Alaska, the Kenai and other rivers in Southcentral Alaska, and rivers in Southeastern Alaska. Biologists are concerned because not enough king salmon are returning to spawn.

What’s happening to the king salmon? There is no shortage of answers to this question. A fisheries professor from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks believes salmon sharks may partially be responsible for the decline, and while he offers evidence that salmon sharks do eat king salmon, it’s hard to understand how sharks could cause the decline of one salmon species but not the others.

Here are some of the other reasons offered for the decline of king salmon runs.

  1. Commercial set-netters and seiners kill too many kings while trying to catch other salmon.
  2. Draggers fishing on the high seas are wiping out the king salmon. Draggers kill as many as 3.4 king salmon per metric ton of pollock caught. Since draggers take over a million tons of pollock each year, as many as 3.4 million king salmon are possibly caught and dumped by this fishery each year.
  3. Professional sport-fishing guides target and kill too many kings, and because their clients are after the big kings, they have altered the gene pool by catching the big kings before they can spawn. This phenomenon is called fishery-induced evolution.
  4. Bank erosion and high bacteria levels caused by too many fishermen standing on the bank or stepping in the river have damaged king spawning areas.
  5. Our oceans are changing, so fewer kings survive their time at sea.
  6. There is no issue. King salmon stocks are as healthy as they ever were, and there is no reason for the ADF&G closures.

I think most people would disagree with #6. There is a problem, and while it is always easy and preferable to point the finger at someone else, I think the blame can be spread among the other five options. We have simply loved our king salmon to death. In the 1980s and 90s, more than 100 sport boats per day trolled for kings in salt water near the Kenai River. More than 500 drift gillnetters deployed nets in Cook Inlet, 450 set-netters strung their nets near the mouth of the Kenai River. Personal-use and subsistence fishermen set their nets, and personal-use dip-netters flocked to the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof. Dip-netters alone harvested between 500 and 1500 kings a year. In 1989, 160 sportfishing guides were registered to guide on the Kenai. By 1997, 354 guides worked the Kenai, and by 2006, the number of guides had risen to 396. Add in the scores of fishermen who line the shores of the river every year, and it is a wonder any king salmon survives this gauntlet to spawn.

An ADF&G study in 1988 determined more than 90% of the entire early-run of king salmon on the Kenai had been caught at least once before reaching their spawning grounds, and some had been caught two or three times by sport anglers. Catch-and-release restrictions are sometimes enforced in areas where biologists are concerned about king runs, but how many of these fish die after they are released? Salmon returning to fresh water are already stressed. They have stopped eating and are undergoing major physiological changes as they prepare to spawn. The amount of energy they must exert while fighting a fisherman and the stress they undergo while the fisherman releases them can kill them before they can spawn.

There is no one easy answer to what we must do to protect Alaska’s king salmon. The solution will require ADF&G, commercial fishermen from every industry, sportfishing guides, and the public to work together. Can we do it? Time will tell.

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