For the past three years, Kenai resident Bruce Friend has had a front row seat to the frenzy of the Kenai River dipnet fishery and what he sees appalls him.
Friend lives off of Old Cannery Road at the mouth of the river and likened the crowds to a gold rush with a greedy mentality to catch all the fish they can and not bother cleaning up the waste. With thousands of people spread out miles on the beach, access to facilities proved inconvenient in the south beach area.
“My property was used as an outhouse for one month of the year,” Friend said. “I am embarrassed for these people and ask for help. The fishery is out of control.”
The City of Kenai presented its report on the 2013 dipnet fishery season to the public on Monday and while findings showed vast improvements were made in beach cleanup and fewer citations issued, the problem of catching violators who go over the harvest limit still remains.
A parade of concerned citizens spoke on what issues need to be addressed as the city begins planning for the 2014 dipnet fishery season, which runs from July 10-31. Complaints centered on the city’s handling of parking, boating safety and an emphasis in increased enforcement in the south beach area.
“As a sportsman I am embarrassed by what people do,” Friend said. “The limits are way too high, nobody needs 150 fish.”
The harvest limit for the Kenai dipnet fishery is 25 salmon for a permit holder and an additional 10 salmon for each member of a household, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Garland Blanchard, a fishing guide from Homer, said he came across three cases of people from the Lower 48 that had at least four times the allotted limit of sockeye salmon. He met a guy from Las Vegas on a plane that showed him a picture of 500 pounds of sockeyes he caught from the Kenai River.
“These are non-residents taking fish out of our river,” Blanchard said. “We have a serious issue with enforcement.”
Kenai police chief Gus Sandahl said he staffed 18 officers, including six as temporary hires, to help with the flood of visitors in July, which was by far the busiest month of calls. Out of 8,313 calls throughout the year, 1,137 were in July with 137 being dipnet specific. Alaska State Troopers worked in coordination with Kenai in dipnet operations, he said. The police reported 12 citations for violating dipnet procedure compared to 106 in 2012. Sandahl credited the city’s maintenance department for their efforts in putting out 60 signs on north beach to inform visitors of the city fish waste code.
Bob Frates, Kenai Maintenance Director, said the staff focused cleanup efforts in the evenings and did not see the high volume of fish carcasses left on the beaches as they had seen in previous years.
Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank said the city generated $440,185 in revenue as compared to $438,911 in expenditures, or roughly $40,000 less than what was budgeted. Still, the numbers showed 2013 was highest revenue season as a result of an increase in fees. The city charged $20 for parking, $25 camping fee and $25 to launch a boat from the city dock.
The city implemented a new cash register computer system, which allowed people to pay fees with credit cards and provided real-time data collection. Eubanks said by having customers enter a zip code with the system they were able to determine that just five percent of dipnetters who volunteered that information were from Kenai, 12 percent were from the Kenai Peninsula and 82 percent from other parts of Alaska.
To deal with the traffic congestion and parking problems for this season, the city is considering eliminating on-street parking in Old Town from July 10-31. Kenai city manager Rick Koch said situations in this area were unsafe last year. The city is also looking to eliminate on-street parking along South Forest Drive and eliminate in-park parking without a permit in Municipal Park during the three-week dipnet season.
In doing so the city may need to create more places for people to park. Koch said the city would look into management of parking at both Eric Hansen Scout Park, which he said became evident as the biggest problem area for parking last year, as well as increase access to south beach.
Kenai resident Tom Thompson said parking has to be found for the dipnet crowds.
“It’s like putting a quart of water in a one-pint bowl,” Thompson said. “It is going to spill over.”
Thompson, who is on the Kenai Harbor Commission, said the wakes from all the boats in the Kenai River and Cook Inlet are destructive.
Koch said the boat traffic on the Kenai River taking part in the fishery has made for unsafe conditions. The city has proposed a drift-boat only day and is developing a plan to institute a no-wake zone as well as request aid in regulation from the Coast Guard, Koch said.
Despite the city’s best efforts, resident Jim Butler said nothing would get better without more help. He said the council should look at how much law enforcement is used to patrol the Alaska State Fair.
“I’ve seen vehicles on the beaches which demonstrate the gluttony for fish,” Butler said. “The agencies throw this mess in our laps. We are woefully under gunned.”
Dwight Kramer, who is on the board of directors for the sport fishermen’s group Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Coalition, recommended the city council put together specific dipnet committee to further examine ways to improve the fishery experience.
“There is an obvious need now more than ever,” Kramer said. “It behooves the city to get more involved.”
Councilman Robert Molloy agreed with the idea to create a dipnet committee and said he would like to bring in more agencies to come together and develop some solutions to the problems.
Friend said it is disappointing how the actions of a minority of participants can show such disrespect in the utilization of a natural resource.
“We are fortunate to live by such a valuable resource,” he said. “It would be a shame to let it go to waste.”
Reach Dan Balmer at email@example.com.