Chase Hanis with his winning king salmon in 2017, the last time Ketchikan held a king salmon derby. (Ketchikan CHARR King Salmon Derby photo)

Ketchikan’s summer king salmon fishing derby is canceled due to concern about low returns.

It would have been the first king salmon derby in Ketchikan since 2017. The two summers after that, organizers switched to coho due to poor forecasts for Chinook. The pandemic led to the cancellation of 2020’s derby and just about everything else.

Michael Briggs, who coordinates the annual fishing competition for Ketchikan’s Cabaret, Hotel, Restaurant and Retailers Association, says organizers were planning to hold the derby over two weekends in mid-to-late June.

“We’ve had a lot of people in the community that were hopeful that we could switch back to kings and that we could get back to the tradition of having a king salmon derby the way we used to,” Briggs said in a phone interview Tuesday.

But on Tuesday, Briggs says he got a call from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s sportfish division.

“And they expressed some concerns with the idea of basically encouraging 1,000 boats across a couple of weekends to go out there and target king salmon,” Briggs said.

State fisheries biologist Kelly Reppert declined an interview request.

But she explained in a statement that the same problem that led organizers to cancel the king derby in 2018 still exists: poor stocks of wild king salmon.

“There is more concern in 2021 for the Behm Canal wild stocks than in 2018 when the derby was first canceled,” Reppert said.

King salmon on the Unuk River north of Ketchikan have been a “stock of concern” for ADF&G since 2017.

And Reppert says too few kings are escaping the fishery into nearby Chickamin River as well — she says that river has missed its escapement goal for four of the last five years. That’s despite year-round salmon fishing closures in northern and northeastern Behm Canal and other measures aimed at king salmon conservation.

Reppert says the department will recommend the Chickamin kings join Unuk kings on the list of stocks of concern.

She says Fish & Game is “riding the line between providing limited opportunity to target hatchery fish and implementing additional closures during the month of June.”

Salmon derby coordinator Briggs says he understands ADF&G’s concerns.

“We certainly, like I said, don’t want to do anything to impact those stocks. We want to be able to continue fishing for king salmon around here for a long time. And so while we don’t exactly have a plan moving forward, I think we can say with some certainty that we will not be doing a king salmon derby, unfortunately,” Briggs said.

He says he hopes to hold a salmon derby for silvers in late summer, though he says planning is in the early stages.

A king salmon fishery targeting hatchery fish is set to open June 1 in George and Carroll Inlets east of Ketchikan. King salmon fishing elsewhere in the Ketchikan area opens June 15, though much of western and southeastern Behm Canal remains closed until August 15. Most areas near Ketchikan have a one-fish bag limit with a minimum length of 28 inches.