More than 50 people gathered in front of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game offices in Soldotna at 7 a.m. Monday at a rally advertising "king salmon preservation."
The majority of the crowd were sport fishermen, both guides and recreational users, but a small group of commercial setnetters attended as well.
Had the rally begun at 7 a.m. it would have opened at precisely the time the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands sections of the Upper Subdistrict of the setnet fishery were scheduled to open Monday morning, however, the fishery was closed by emergency order as of 2:45 p.m. Sunday.
At about 7:45 a.m., Dave Goggia, resident of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association and owner of Hooky Charters, started off the rally by speaking about the history of king salmon measurement using different types of sonar over the past several years and how Fish and Game has struggled to get an accurate count of kings in the river.
"There aren't that many fish in the river, we know that much. We know that it is a down year. Historically low, possibly," he said. "So we've got to make it about the kings and not about us, our pocketbooks. I think that's kind of why we're all here today. It's them that we're all concerned about."
As of July 5 a season total of 659 late run fish were measured in the Kenai River, well below the minimum management objectives set by Fish and Game.
Goggia said the blame for the low abundance of king salmon was shared by all user groups.
"You know Fish and Game fished us when we probably shouldn't have been fishing," he said. "(They) let commercial fishermen fish when they probably shouldn't have been fishing, so we all have a hand in this problem. So if we're going to come up with a solution we probably all need to pull together and come up with a solution that actually gets more kings in the river."
Gary Hollier, a setnet fisherman was the only commercial fisherman to take a turn at the microphone.
"We can all point fingers, beat each other up. Commercial fishermen are out of the water we're sharing this burden. We might get in, we might not get in. Catch and release at least keeps the guides, the tourism business going, you still got halibut, reds, rainbows. It's not the best option," he said. "(Setnetters are) going to sit on the beach until there's some abundance. We might or might not get into the water."
He suggested a few ideas like enhancements being done on the Kasilof.
"Why don't we keep --," Hollier said before being interrupted.
"Get the setnets a mile off of shore," shouted someone in the crowd.
"I understand that, I'm not trying to start a train wreck here, I'm just trying to put it into some perspective, you know --," Hollier said before being cut off again.
"Save the river, save the kings," someone in the crowd shouted.
"Save the river, save the kings," Hollier repeated. "We'll we're doing that ... I don't know you just cannot continue to blame the setnet fishery that's been here for 80-100 years and historically takes 20-25 percent of the run. I'm sorry."
"Bull----," someone said.
"Whatever, I at least have the gumption to get up here and say what I think," Hollier said. "I'm not trying to get into a freakin' war here ... we (setnetters) get beat up a little bit. Catch-and-release right now keeps everybody in the water. (Setnetters are) out of the water. It keeps the guide business viable that's all I'm saying."
Goggia took over again and told the crowd there were issues, but that Hollier makes a good point.
"They're out of the water," Goggia said.
Greg Brush, a sport fisherman from Soldotna spoke in response to Hollier.
"I want to thank you for coming, you've got a lot of guts being here and I appreciate you coming up and speaking but you're wrong," Brush said. "This is a rally, it's not a protest and when you speak you run the risk of inflating things and irritating things and you're certainly entitled to your opinion and you're entitled to speak up here but this is a rally and it's a preservation rally, we're trying to preserve the kings."
He said the guides who attended the rally were interested in conservation.
"Personally and I would bet most people here, personally I don't want catch-and-release. You just said 'you guys have a viable business you're still in the water.' You know what? I don't want to be in the water and I don't have a viable business today. That's pretty scary because the bottom line is the kings aren't in the river and I can't sell a trip because I can't look a customer in the eye and say let's go out there and fish and catch a big king."
Local fishermen weren't the only ones addressing the crowd, David Burk, of Arlington Texas, took the microphone and told the crowd that they didn't know him.
"I'm just one of those guys that spent $10,000 this week to catch a king, me and my son who graduated high school," Burk said. "You've got to get excited that the fish aren't getting to the Kenai River. Something's got to change."
Burk said he fished the river in 1987 and came back 25 years later to see that there were no more kings.
"Blame it on technology, blame it on what you want to but the reality is 5 percent of the fish getting caught in the river is not the problem," he said. "The red salmon swishing their tail over king salmon beds is not the problem. The reality is the king salmon aren't getting to the river because they're getting stopped and they're getting killed before they get here."
He encouraged everyone in attendance to go the highest level of government and let their voices be heard.
"You've got to go to the top you've got to write your letters because I want my son, when his 18-year-old son graduates, my grandson graduates, I want to be able to say 'Hey, let me take you to the biggest king salmon in the world. Let's go to the Kenai and lets spend a few more thousand dollars to catch a king.'"
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.