Land and wildlife management agency representatives and Kenai Peninsula residents gathered at the Donald E. Gilman River Center on Tuesday to continue an ongoing public dialogue to assist agencies in developing a five-year action plan for reducing adverse human-bear encounters on the Russian and upper Kenai rivers.
Topics discussed included fish waste management and disposal, temporal and spatial closures and bear management. The discussion was focused primarily on the first two topics, as not much is known about bear demographics on the Peninsula.
Bobbie Jo Skibo, Russian River interagency management coordinator, began with the topic of fish waste management, sharing public comments from an April public forum.
The estimated annual weight of fish waste generated in the Kenai-Russian River Complex (KRRC) averages 114,000 pounds, based on harvest data from 1991 to 2010. Approximately 25 percent of the harvest takes place in the clear waters of the Russian River and 75 percent on the Kenai River.
"What we were ... doing really wasn't enough to manage that amount of fish waste, so we know additional efforts are needed," Skibo said. "Where we're leaning as a group is to exhaust ideas for on-site disposal, but in reality there might be some off-site options."
Public comments included the pursuit of mechanical grinder technology to be installed at locations convenient to anglers. Options include a hydro-powered grinder and an electric grinder.
The cost of the hydro-powered grinder has not been estimated while the construction cost of the electric-powered grinder is estimated at $13,000.
"We grapple with where to put the grinder that would be convenient for anglers to use. Do we place those in multiple locations or one location?" Skibo asked.
Management of equipment would also require staff. Knives, trash and rocks can get stuck in the grinders.
Additional options discussed included on-site manual carcass removal using crews with rakes and shovels, which would require staffing; off-site disposal utilizing the waste in a new product, which would require working with a fish waste processing facility; disposal of fish waste at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Landfill, but quantity would be limited to 1,000 pounds per week; using a vendor to collect fish on-site with a mobile unit to process fish and dispose waste off-site, which would require a conveniently accessible collection site; and an on-site processing facility for angler use, which would require construction estimated from $25,000 to $2 million, depending upon design and features.
Soldotna resident Ted Spraker, vice chairman of the Alaska Board of Game, raised concern over the off-site option. He said removal of fish carcasses would reduce a valuable nutrient supply to the fish on the river.
"Some folks say the carcasses are essential to the Dollies and the rainbows in the river, and I've also heard that it really doesn't make a difference, because there's the first run (of fish) and other factors that provide nutrients to the river," Spraker said.
The discussion guide handed out at the forum states, "The amount of MDN (marine derived nutrients) contributed by fish waste generated by the sport and subsistence sockeye fisheries in the KRRC represents a relatively minor component of the overall MDN provided by all species of salmon ... and would not likely be a primary determinate in management decisions."
But, Department of Fish and Game Regional Supervisor James Hasbrouck contends the nutrients provided from carcasses have benefits, and if removed those benefits would be lost from the system.
"I don't think we can specifically state what kind of loss there would be to the environment, because it's complex. ... The benefits would be gone but I don't know if that would mean that the rainbow trout would go away or that the population would decline precipitously," he said.
The main concern should be whether or not the offered methods provide a food source for the bears, Andy Loranger, Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager, said.
"We would like to consider options recognizing the importance of MDNs and the benefits that they do provide," Loranger said. "That's why we need options that do not provide food sources for the bears but can still provide nutrients."
Native tradition on the Peninsula and in the Interior is that fish bones and waste have to go back to the river, Brenda Trefon, environmental director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, said.
"I'm not in favor of the off-site options," she said. "I think we should respect not just science but include the traditional knowledge that has been passed down."
The use of multiple options for fish waste disposal is likely.
"One way to think about this is we wouldn't necessarily go with one option," Hasbrouck said. "We wouldn't go with just grinders or a go with just a vendor and that would be it. I think there's potential for us to end up using a sweep of these options."
Time-based or nighttime closures of the KRRC as a management tool is still being evaluated. Rationale provided by the public supporting these closures emphasize the bears may change use patterns and reduce day use as a result.
It would also reduce the risk of bear encounters at night when visibility is poor, and fish could move farther upstream and reduce concentration and angler congestion.
If a nighttime closure were instituted, it is uncertain whether and how it would affect bear distribution, behavior and times of bear activity, Loranger said.
Avid anglers in attendance were opposed to nighttime closures, stating the privacy of late hours would be lost. Considered time for closing access to human use is 11 p.m. to 4 a.m.
Trefon was opposed to continued night fishing, as it goes against Alaska Native traditions, but she suggested the proposal's wording be changed to state closure during darkness, rather than a time period.
The anglers also opposed spatial closures.
"I know it's not set in concrete yet, but I would hate to be told I couldn't fish in a certain area because that's the bear's (fishing) hole," Bill Tappan, president of the Peninsula Community Health Services board, said. "I'll coexist with bears, and I have for 22 years now."
Based on initial evaluation of public comments, the involved agencies are not recommending permanent closures for any specific areas. Closures should be made on an as-needed basis to respond to specific threats, Loranger said.
Brief discussions on education, regulations and enforcement rounded out the public forum.
Skibo presented the new Russian-Kenai River visitor guide. Production of the guide was made possible through grant money, and while she admits it can be "wordy" it offers must-have educational material. The guide includes a map of the area, ferry information and bear country basics.
Regional Management Coordinator of Fish and Game Gino Del Frate said his agency does not favor killing bears as a management tool, but the public has commented that it would possibly be beneficial to reduce the number of bears. This would be done through hunting, which the Board of Game regulates.
Having studied brown bears statewide, Steve Stringham with Alaska Recreational Management said the effect of being hunted on the bears needs to be considered. There are dramatic differences in brown bears, he said.
The final public meeting is today at the Commons of the University of Alaska Anchorage from 6 p.m. to 9 p.m.
After the public meetings in October, the Russian River Interagency Coordination Group will develop its five-year action plan, which identifies actions to be implemented at the KRRC from 2012 through 2016.
The public can e-mail comments to firstname.lastname@example.org or mail written comments to Jan Caulfield, 114 S. Franklin St., Ste. 203, Juneau, AK 99801 until Nov. 7.
Jerzy Shedlock can be reached at email@example.com.