Commercial setnet fishermen rallied and then took to the streets in Kenai to protest fishing closures aimed at protecting king salmon.
The format of the rally was simple; Any of the nearly 200 people who stood in the park strip on Friday could take the microphone and talk about economic issues, closures, fishery management and the elusiveness of harvesting an overabundance of one fish while protecting the dwindling numbers of another.
A steady stream of people took their turn, with many touching on often repeated phrases about the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s management of the Cook Inlet. Many questioned politics and biological management of king salmon, and called for more attention to the Cook Inlet as commercial setnet fishermen and in-river sport fishermen face unprecedented closures.
Attendees at the rally were overwhelming setnet fishermen who have been closed for a significant portion of their normal fishing season, Several people spoke about the economic impact of closures in the area.
Gov. Sean Parnell held a press conference earlier Friday to address the king salmon issue.
Borough Mayor Mike Navarre said he and Kenai Mayor Pat Porter travelled to Anchorage to discuss the issues with fish and game commissioner Cora Campbell and Parnell following the conference, where Campbell announced that a team of researchers was being formed to look into why king salmon have returned in low numbers all over the state.
“We had the opportunity to meet ... and stress what the impact means to the Kenai Peninsula but more importantly what the impact to families who participate and for years have participated in the setnet fishery,” Navarre said. “We know it's important, the governor recognizes that there is a huge economic impact; they’ve pledged to use all of the management tools that they have as they get new information.”
Navarre said he understood that people were angered by being pulled out of the water.
“I know its very frustrating not getting answers to what-ifs that are posed by fishermen wanting to know some definitive answer about whether or not they’re going to be allowed back in the water,” he said.
Navarre predicted the board of fisheries would meet off-cycle again and would discuss the Cook Inlet and said he would request that the board meet on the central peninsula so fishermen here wouldn’t have to face the additional burden of travelling outside of the area to discuss the impacts of this year's closures.
As the crowd grew larger the weather dropped by several degrees and drops of rain began to drop intermittently, however the line of speakers remained steady and the crowd pressed closer together clapping and shouting and encouraging one another to speak.
Todd Smith, whose family setnets by False Creek in Clam Gulch, spoke to the crowd and urged them to remember that closures to the setnet fishery were a regular part of the process of management in the Cook Inlet and to keep the fish in mind.
After he handed the microphone to the next person, Smith said he trusted the department of fish and game to manage the fishery competently when allowed to do so biologically.
"Commercial fishing — setnetting — has been in the inlet for over 100 years," he said. "Obviously we've made mistakes and we're fortunate ... the state in the past (has) done a very good job we've had good biologists and they've maintained all the data. That's what they use."
However, Smith said he thought increasing political pressure had influenced fish and game's commercial division to close the setnet fishery.
"They make a management report every year. It's 200 pages long. Nobody reads it but it's there, it has all the data in it and that's what they run off of," he said.
"The data supports (setnetters). They fish us when they can, when the fish aren't there we don't fish. That's why I supported us not fishing earlier this year with the understanding that when the fish are here an acceptable number of kings are going to be harvested. Now the political pressures aren't letting us do that."
Travis Every, whose family setnets and was instrumental in organizing the rally, said he called in to hear the press conference and wasn’t pleased by what he heard.
"They can do all the studies they want after the season, but after the season is too late," he said. "We need help now."