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Faced with dismal king run, Kenai River guide switches to catch and release

Taking a stand

Posted: April 7, 2013 - 9:22pm  |  Updated: April 8, 2013 - 8:11am
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In this July 2012 photo, EZ Limit Guide Service owner and Soldotna resident Greg Brush, 50, poses for a photo while releasing a Kenai River king salmon. Brush, frustrated by poor king salmon runs, converted his business to catch and release only for Kenai kings. This will be his first full summer operating under the self-imposed rules. He said the choice, while a risky business move in a tradition-soaked fishery, is extremely personal and the only way he could make peace with the state of the runs.   EZ Limit Guide Service
EZ Limit Guide Service
In this July 2012 photo, EZ Limit Guide Service owner and Soldotna resident Greg Brush, 50, poses for a photo while releasing a Kenai River king salmon. Brush, frustrated by poor king salmon runs, converted his business to catch and release only for Kenai kings. This will be his first full summer operating under the self-imposed rules. He said the choice, while a risky business move in a tradition-soaked fishery, is extremely personal and the only way he could make peace with the state of the runs.

For 24 years, Greg Brush has been cementing the foundation of his life — faith, family and fish.

When he was a 27-year-old, he abandoned his union job, moving away from Northern California’s salmon and steelhead fishing in search of the famous, giant king salmon. He built his life around that decision — he met his wife, had kids, bought a house and built his business as a full time Kenai River guide.

The foundation was solid, he thought, until he looked closer this summer and noticed the cracks forming. The king salmon on the river in decline, Brush looked for a reason.

The 50-year-old Soldotna man could feel the chips falling away, solidifying a feeling that had been brewing for years. Brush had been entrenched in Kenai River issues and had participated in numerous boards and meetings. At up to 50 hours a week, it became an unpaid, full-time job and nothing changed.

If anything, it grew worse.

Much worse.

The weakest king run in recent memory shut down the sport and commercial fisheries and forced a community on the brink to look around for help. Brush looked inward. He realized that in all his years, the answer presented to solve king shortages was pointing the finger. It’s always someone else’s fault, he said.

“A bunch of words keep coming to mind,” said Brush, owner of EZ Limit Guide Service. “Hypocritical. The short-sighted mentality. This ‘me first,’ take, take, take. It’s my right. It’s my prerogative as an Alaskan.

“You know what? What if we put the resource first? What if? What if Greg stopped thinking about Greg and Greg didn’t think about EZ Limit. What if I didn’t put EZ Limit first? What if I put the Kenai king first? That’s what I’m doing and you’d be shocked at how many people can understand that once it is explained.”

Each giant king pulled over the side of his boat, gills ripped, head bonked, felt like a new blow from the sledgehammer, a direct hit to the foundation.

“Every time I do it I’m (celebrating with the client) and the little guy over here,” he said pointing to his other shoulder, “is going, ‘What the heck are you doing?’”

In the middle of last summer, Brush made his stand. No more. He wouldn’t kill any more Kenai kings if he could help it. EZ Limit Guide Service was catch-and-release from there on out.

Sitting in his Mackey Lake-area home on Wednesday, Brush explained the reasoning behind and steps he’s taking to accomplish his risky business move. He said he has spent the winter giving the same talk to prospective and returning customers so that he, his clients and guides are all on the same page at the time of booking. The rule: only those kings fatally hooked during the fight that would otherwise die will be harvested, when legal, he said. If the client agrees, they book. If not they go their separate ways.

The decision is personal, Brush said, stressing that while he has been a long-time advocate of catch-and-release, he is not pushing the ethic on other guides or the local industry. Rather he considers it a statement, that through client education about the resource he can perhaps change the mindset of king anglers to benefit the future of the fish.

“You’d be shocked at how many people — once you take the time to explain it to them — they go, ‘That makes sense,’” he said.

Others don’t get it. Several clients have called and canceled trips and Brush said his initial response was one of uncertainty.

“It is like you get punched in the gut — I just lost a $6,000 booking because of this decision,” he said. “Then you snap back to reality and remember the anguish of the previous king season. ... I feel strongly enough about this that I know it is the right thing for me to do and I have to stay the course.”

Brush contends the idea won’t fail. Clients can fill their freezers with other fish like halibut and sockeye. He also hopes to attract a certain clientele of like-minded fishermen.

“I’ve already seen tremendous support for this,” he said. “My king bookings, I honestly can say that in the first year of doing this aren’t (significantly) weaker.”

The strong educational portion of his plan centers on talking with clients prior to the charter as well as while they are in his boat and addressing what he considers misinformation about catch-and-release mortality. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, between seven and eight percent of kings die after being released.

Brush said he can reduce that percentage using single hook, no bait and proper catch-and-release methods, even down to one, or two percent.

“The anti-catch-and-release crowd immediately says, ‘OK, so it is two percent. So you land 100 kings, you put all of those back and two die. How is that right? How do you live with yourself?’” he said. “My answer is always, ‘It is not perfect and we do the best we can. I can live with two out of 100 dying because if I don’t do catch-and-release, guess what, 100 out of 100 die.’”

Perhaps the biggest battle Brush faces is that of tradition and ego among other guides, some who profess to preach catch-and-release but would rather not change.

“There’s a lot of pride,” he said. “You want to do good for your clients and you want them to catch fish and you want the other guides to know you are a good fisherman, so your ego comes into play.

“You hit the beach and the boat off to your left off-loads two kings, and the boat on the right off-loads three, and you off-load zero. At the end of the day it becomes a contest and it shouldn’t. You have to get past that ego and say, ‘You know what, I’m a good fisherman and I know my customers had a great time today.’”

He’d prefer to start treating the king fishery the way many fly fishermen treat trout and steelhead fishing, he said.

“My gosh, you watch a fly fisherman, he catches a native rainbow or a steelhead and he treats it like it is his firstborn son,” he said. “The mentality is, ‘I have got something really special here.’”

Brush said he hasn’t heard negative comments from his fellow guides, only the common saying, “Hey when they stop killing ‘em, I’ll stop killing ‘em,” referring to the area’s long-standing feud between commercial and sport fishermen.

But that’s more reason to make a stand, he said. In the face of politics and issues of conservation turning to issues of allocation, Brush said he can no longer point the finger with one hand and swing the fish bat with the other.

“I’m talking about the big picture, not talking about, ‘Well they killed X amount and we only killed Y amount,’” he said. “Let’s not even go there. Control what you can control and do your part and then somewhere you might have some merit in saying, ‘Look at what we’ve done. What are you guys going to do?’”

Brush said he isn’t sure if his idea is the answer. But, he said it feels right. And, it can’t hurt, he said.

“Is this going to make a difference in the fishery? In the run?” he said. “No. Of course it isn’t. Is it a statement? Yeah, it is.”

 

Brian Smith can be reached at brian.smith@peninsulaclarion.com.

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Kapco
148
Points
Kapco 04/12/13 - 02:40 pm
2
0
Yes

I was hoping my sarcasm was pretty overt. I am keenly aware of the impacts just bad rumors have on businesses on the Peninsula let alone closures. And, anyone who lives here year round is fooling themselves if they do not think they are affected. We have a state-wide king problem--are we to believe it is from over-escapement in previous years? Really? As I said, I hope the kings swim deep and in the middle of the inlet and we get a huge over-escapement of kings on the Kenai this year and for many years to come.

smithtb
235
Points
smithtb 04/13/13 - 12:15 am
0
1
'New Normal'

Yes, I believe silver fishing was restricted a whie back. After several years of lower escapements, certain interest groups were insistent about a 'new normal' of low silver abundance. Restrictions were passed just in time for some of the best silver runs in a long time. Now they are down again. But the classic must go on:)

Kapco,

Total exploitation rate of LRK's is only 39%. That is a very low exploitation rate for salmon compared to most Alaskan fisheries, which are world-class. It is hard to overfish a stock at this level, which has remained pretty constant for quite some time. (Sockeye exploitation is around 70% I believe.). As long as we take care of our resource and our habitat, the fishery is very sustainable.

I too have questions about ADFG's ability to enumerate Kings. While I still not confident that they know how to run the counters, I'm confident in quite a bit of their old data, such as commercial havest records, sport harvest surveys, guide logbook data, etc. It's all pretty solid and independant data. And much of it was used in formulating the new escapement goal and was published in their report.

smithtb
235
Points
smithtb 04/13/13 - 12:25 am
0
1
Many reasons

Summer bookings are down for many reasons. Restrictions, bad press stating low king returns and not mentioning great Sockeye returns, poor economy, high gas prices, TOO MUCH COMPETITION. You can't judge the health of a fishery by the number of people at Holiday Inn. Seriously.

Likely, many kings do swim deep in the inlet. Part of the reason why setnetters only harvest 13% of them. People hook em in deep water in Homer all the time don't they?

kenai123
1268
Points
kenai123 04/13/13 - 03:05 am
3
1
pengy and beaverlooper, juvenal kings feed exclusively on the sa

Both reds and juvenal kings feed exclusively on the same thing in the ocean. That item is euphausiids (crab larvae). Reds feed on euphausiids smaller than 5 mm, juvenal kings feed on the same euphausiids after they grow up a little and are larger than 17 mm. In the last five years our ocean production of euphausiids greater than 17 mm has dropped 99% from what it used to be. We still have plenty younger euphausiids less than 5 mm, therefore reds still have plenty of feed for now. Science is telling us that we have produced way to many reds and those reds are consuming euphausiids as fast as nature can produce them. Silvers and herring also feed exclusively on these same >17 mm euphausiids, thus compounding the lack of survival for anything which needs these larger euphausiids. Use your common sense for a second, we now have 1% of what we used to have regarding juvenal king feed in our ocean. All fishermen in Alaska should be concerned about a marine loss like this.

Many of the posters on this site are commercial fishermen and they should all be concerned with this kind of a marine resource loss. Do you see any of them searching the marine environment for the reason the entire state is experiencing dramatic king salmon losses? You do not because they do not care about king salmon. They actually believe that our current fisheries management will not eventually cause the same to happen to our red runs. I have new for you all, it is just a matter of time before you will begin to see the same dramatic losses within our red runs. When that finally happens, all commercial fishermen will become believers. Trouble is it will take ten to twenty years to fix our marine problem then but why should these commercial fishermen worry about that? They will all be retired by then thus leaving this fisheries nightmare for their kids to figurer out.

smithtb
235
Points
smithtb 04/13/13 - 08:27 am
2
2
Retired?

Yeah, thats right. Kings sell for $5 a pound, and a lack of abundance of Kings means that many commercial fisherman don't fish. Nevertheless, we don't care about them at all. What a bunch of non-constructive mudslinging.

And how do you know when I'll retire? Maybe I'm one of the younger generation of fishermen who has watched you all fight over this resource for my entire life, to its detriment. I'm just getting started, not on my way out like you and your old, tired, predictable, and completey BS arguments.

It's a shame that you can't see the value in all of our fisheries resources and user groups.

kenai123
1268
Points
kenai123 04/13/13 - 02:52 pm
2
1
Kenai River H&R is cheap river theatrics

Set gill netters seem to do everything possible to avoid the truth on this issue but every once in a while some just has to come leaking out in between the lies. I have talked to 57 Kenai River guides so far regarding "the Mr. Brush grand catch and release solution" and so far I have not discovered even a single one which agrees with him. The claimed "tradition and ego among other guides" is totally irrelevant to these guides, the issue is about the truth and 100% of them agree with me that the catch and release idea is nothing more than a cheap smoke screen attempting to distort our true statewide king salmon problem. All of these guides believe like me, that we could close down both our east side gill nets and the Kenai River and still the rivers king escapement would continue to decline. They believe this because they agree with what our ADF&G is telling them. Our ADF&G is telling us that we have a statewide king salmon problem, that means a problem in the ocean. From what I have seen, these guides also believe that Kenai River smoke & mirror stunts like "H&R theatrics" only muddy the waters in verifying the true responsible ocean factors. So who are you going to believe; really cheap fisheries theatrics or our ADF&G? Fisheries science is still science and fisheries stunts are still just stunts.

beaverlooper
2224
Points
beaverlooper 04/13/13 - 06:01 pm
1
0
where do i find that information

123 Where do i find the information you provided? Some one else said the reason was that reds were plankton eaters so they didn't feed where the trawlers are.I have read several times that no one really knows what happens after
kings hit salt water.
The only thing in common between these comments are they never say where they got their info so I have to asssume that they all are making this stuff up to serve themselves unless these statements can be backed up with sceince from some one with no skin in the game. Give me some websites where i can see genuine research.

kenai123
1268
Points
kenai123 04/14/13 - 03:13 am
1
0
Reference Material, euphausiid prey competition.

There is so much information out there on this issue that you could read for many days.
R. W. Tanasichuk has a report under the title (Interannual variations in the population biology and productivity of Thysanoessa spinifera in Barkley Sound, Canada, with special reference to the 1992 and 1993 warm ocean years). Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Pacific Biological Station, Nanaimo, British Columbia V9R 5K6, Canada. (R. W. Tanasichuk) http://www.int-res.com/articles/meps/173/m173p163.pdf
--------------------------------------
Implications of interannual variability in euphausiid population biology for fish production along the south-west coast of Vancouver Island: a synthesis FISHERIES OCEANOGRAPHY, (R. W. Tanasichuk), Issue 1 2002, http://www.academicconcepts.net/concepts/932/upwelling.htm
----------------------------------------
Just type into a search engine (Thysanoessa spinifera and R. W. Tanasichuk). You should get back many cites on our Thysanoessa spinifera losses. Some of the listings attempt to blame our crab larvae losses on global warming. I believe that warming may be involved also along with dramatically increased competition by stocks targeting the same euphausiid prey, thus the juvenal king and sockeye salmon competition for the same euphausiid prey.
http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1046/j.1365-2419.2002.00185.x/abst...
http://www.pices.int/publications/scientific_reports/Report20/Rep20_REX_...
http://www.academicconcepts.net/concepts/341/fish_production.htm
http://www.thefreelibrary.com/Pacific+hake%2c+Merluccius+productus%2c+au...

smithtb
235
Points
smithtb 04/14/13 - 09:59 am
0
0
ADFG EG Report

http://www.adfg.alaska.gov/FedAidPDFs/FMS13-02.pdf

Run Reconstruction, Spawner–Recruit Analysis, and Escapement Goal Recommendation for Late-Run Chinook Salmon in the Kenai River

KenaiKardinal88
381
Points
KenaiKardinal88 04/14/13 - 03:18 pm
2
1
Alaska Residents Least Represented

The Comm Fish thugs have destroyed this fishery. Then they point fingers at one of the smallest user groups - sport fishers.

Shut down the Comm Fishers now before they destroy another fishery.

What percentage of Comm Fishers are year-round Alaska residents - a lot less than they admit to.

AKNATUREGUY
295
Points
AKNATUREGUY 04/14/13 - 04:32 pm
1
1
YES SHUT DOWN THE ESSN

Yes shut down the ESSN. The State should buy out every ESSN permit. This is an archaic outdated form of employment that should no longer be allowed in the Cook Inlet fisheries. Let these guys find some more modern job that does not take away the fisheries from the sport fishers.

beaverlooper
2224
Points
beaverlooper 04/15/13 - 09:23 pm
1
1
AKNAUREGUY You must be

AKNAUREGUY You must be new around here most of the ESSN have either been born here to fishing families or their
parents have been fishing those sites since this was a territory.Bet more of them live here year round than kenai river guides.

AKNATUREGUY
295
Points
AKNATUREGUY 04/15/13 - 10:07 pm
1
1
BEAVERLOOPER..........IT'S TIME

BEAVERLOOPER, I've been here since '69. It doesn't matter that several generations have been set netting. Thousands of folks have lost generational jobs and the new generation has found jobs elsewhere. The set netters should be no exception to this. IT'S TIME for the ESSN to go away.

The Kenai River fishery ecosystem is unparalleled as a worldwide sport fishery resource. It should be dedicated as such and fish entering the river should be protected. If more Reds need to be harvested in the saltwater, the drifters should be able to do this.

Enough of this nonsense. Nothing will be left as a legacy.

It is unfortunate that the Feds did not purchase and protect this entire area when the Moose Range was established.

smithtb
235
Points
smithtb 04/28/13 - 10:07 pm
1
0
Thank you Greg Brush for taking a stand.

I would like to point out that at the 2011 UCI Board of Fish, there were several proposals to eliminate the slot limit which prohibits harvest of Trophy sized early run kings submitted by KRSA and other Guides. Greg Brush submitted a proposal to expand the protection of trophy fish to late run Kings also. Regardless of whether I agree with you or not on some of the issues, thank you Greg for doing what you think is right to protect out fisheries.

AKNATUREGUY, you obviously don't know much about nature. How does getting rid of ESSN's only to put more fish in our river, which will undoubtedly result in more fishing pressure on an already overcrowded river protect anything? Get real.

WRO
102
Points
WRO 07/22/13 - 08:08 am
0
0
Release mortality

Here are some recent studies on King release mortality..

http://www.sf.adfg.state.ak.us/fedaidpdfs/FDS91-39.PDF
Kenai river study

http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1577/M02-101.1#preview

Spring chinook in oregon.

Both show a total mortality under 10% with successful spawning. C and R should be the mantra here on these magnificent salmon so that our children have a chance to catch and release a king over 50lbs some day. There are hundred, if not thousands of opportunities to fill your freezer on the peninsula. No need to kill the biggest and the best to do it.

Reading through the comments here, Its sad to see the lack of biological interest or conservation ethic amongst the posters.

Years and years of over exploitation of the ER fish (ADFG's fault for the magic 7/1 slaughter date, well before 90% of the ER fish spawned) and the systematic destruction of the LR fish by all user groups have brought us to this point. Look around the state, rivers like the Nush, Kasilof, and Situk all rebounded this year from last. Where as the Kenai is still crashing. On every other river in the state, ADFG didn't lower the SEG. Only the Kenai to keep the antiquated ESSN fishery going and to appease ego hungry guides.

With regards to the ESSN fishery, only 2/3'rd of the permits are fished on an average year. On average that is less than 100 fishermen, 95% of which hold another job or profession. Why should the resource suffer to appease less than 100 fishermen and out of state processors? The drifters catch plenty of UCI reds to serve them market with no need for the ESSN fishery.

Looking at economic value. The Dipnet and Sportsfisheries in South central alaska provide approximately 621 million dollars to the state of alaska where as the total UCI commercial fishery only brings in 31 million dollars, most of which goes to out of state fish processors, out of state commercial fishermen, and seasonal workers.

Why is it fair that 80% of the resource goes to 3% of the population?

As for the 13% harvest of the Kenai king run, Its a fallacy at best. First off this number does not take into account the fish taken by SE trollers, Trawlers, and LCI fisheries. Secondly this does not take into account fall out, when I was working as a deckhand set netting, the vast majority of the kings we caught were nose hooked big bucks that were barely hanging in the nets. How many kings are killed that die and fall out when the nets are picked at slack or flagged for picking during a ripping tide? Its an unknown at this point, but its not rare to see dead kings floating in the inlet or washed up on the beach at high tide.

Its sad to see the fishery that I cut my teeth on, going the way of the dodo bird at the hand of simple minded greedy people. I have been releasing big kings for the last 15 years from the Kenai to Oregon and hope others will follow suit.

Two wrongs don't make a right.

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