KENAI — A skiff called the Santa Maria, flying a pirate flag, skidded into the Nikiski beach, grating to a heavy halt.
The crew efficiently hauled the boat further up into the sand with a tractor, and a truck with peeling paint rolled back alongside it to receive the fish piled inside. Soon, slime, water and blood were flying as the crew of four cheerfully pitched the fish into the bed of the truck.
The setnetters in the Kenai and East Forelands sections wet their gear for the first time this season Monday. Their counterparts in the Kasilof section have been fishing since June 23, and the drift gillnet fleet has been fishing since June 20. The setnet fisheries in the Kasilof, Kenai and East Forelands will be open until Aug. 15 unless closed earlier by emergency order.
Gene Palm, whose parents-in-law Tina and Erik Barnes own the site, said part of the first period was getting all the gear tested and going again — testing engines, checking nets and other preparations.
“It’s just the first day,” he said.
In the next site over, Robin Nyce and her crew picked their fish from their boat at high tide and pitched them into sorted bins to be handed over to the processor.
“It’s going wonderfully,” Nyce, who owns the site, said. “The weather is cooperating and things are going well. It’s really wonderful.”
Monday was a regular period for the setnetters, a 12-hour opening from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. An emergency order issued around 1 p.m. extended the period until midnight, giving the setnetters an additional five hours of fishing time. According to the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan, which managers from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game use to guide decisions on the fishery, managers can only provide up to 84 hours of additional fishing time each week outside the two regularly scheduled periods on Mondays and Thursdays.
This season marks a little more freedom for the setnetters than in recent years, in part due to an improved return of king salmon to the Kenai River so far this year. As of Sunday, 5,357 late-run king salmon had passed Fish and Game’s sonar at river mile 14, according to Fish and Game data. The early run showed better numbers as well — 9,851 early-run king salmon passed the sonar in May and June, prompting Fish and Game to open the run to retention June 18. Because of poor water conditions, 384 total early-run kings were caught, with 112 harvested, according to Fish and Game’s final early-run in-season assessment.
Fish and Game managers loosened the pre-season bait restriction on late-run kings Friday, with passage rates promising for making the escapement goal.
Sockeye salmon returns to the Kenai River look positive as well, with 230,114 sockeye passing the sonar at river mile 19 as of July 10. That number is more than double what it was at the same time last year, according to Fish and Game data.
It remains to be seen whether the run is large or simply early, but Fish and Game has projected a larger-than-usual run this year — approximately 7.1 million sockeye, with about 4.1 million harvested by the commercial fishery, are projected to return to Upper Cook Inlet, according to the Upper Cook Inlet 2016 salmon fishing outlook. The run to the Kenai River is projected to come in at 4.7 million fish, about 1 million more than the 20-year average, according to the outlook.
The fishermen are cautiously optimistic for the season. The seasons are shorter than they used to be, but they’ll fish when they can, Palm said cheerfully.
Heidi Chay, who fishes on the Barnes site, drove a truck full of fish north along the beach toward the Alaska Salmon Purchasers buying station, passing the Nyce site on the way, where fishermen playfully pitched fish over one another’s shoulders, dodging the flying slime.
The buying station is a relatively small one compared to some of the larger processors in Cook Inlet, serving mostly the setnetting families on the top of the hill, but it bustled with workers sorting salmon into buckets and getting them on ice.
“It’s nice because with this place right here, you can get the salmon into the boats, picked and on ice in usually less than an hour,” Chay said.
Mark Powell, the president of Alaska Salmon Purchasers, drove the forklift laden with buckets of salmon to and fro across the lot, directing workers as he went.
“It’s the first day, but if this is how (the season) goes, then it looks good,” he said.