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The demise of the Kenai River king salmon

Posted: September 27, 2011 - 10:41am

Kenai River King salmon may you rest in peace.

We have taken away your biggest and your best. We have over-fished you and we have badly mismanaged you. As sport fishermen, are we sorry — probably. Will we do anything about it before it’s to late — probably not. At least not as long as the last vestiges of your species remains the focus of our almighty tourism dollar.

Throughout the years we caught many of you that were trophy size (over 55 inches in length) but not anymore. Between 2003 – 2007 we averaged 6 per season but after that we only caught one trophy in 2009 so it’s probably safe to say that we have succeeded in elimination of the largest members of your population.

Are we sorry for this — probably, but we sure have a lot of nice brochure pictures and wall mounts around town to show for it. The photos also look great in our local newspapers and websites.  Don’t plan on being world famous too much longer though, the word is getting out that you’re not really that special any longer.  By the way, we can still catch your largest members and still keep them most of the season.  Kind of like we did with the passenger pigeons and buffalo.

Many of us believe that when history is written your demise will be blamed on two prominent factors.

First, we developed a sport fishery that became dominated by an unlimited commercial guided fishing component that was driven by an ever-demanding tourism market. To this date people and agencies are still reluctant to admit that they are over harvesting your stocks and rebuff any notion of accepting any conservation measures that might hurt their booking capabilities.

Additionally, the emergence of a power base initiated by this tourism / guide lobby coalition, with their immense financial resources and influence, became the controlling factor in your management. They eventually controlled the entire regulatory and management process from the Governor to the Board of Fisheries, including the ADF&G and DNR Commissioners and their upper level managers. Unethical practices ran deep.

You know the outcomes of this polluted process.  A slot limit that did not do enough to protect larger spawning females, no closures on important mainstem spawning areas, and no vision of how to control limits on growth of the fishery.  The list goes on — including habitat issues such as water quality, turbidity, boat wake erosion, etc..  In fact, regulations were passed that kept the worst wake producing large boats on the river with more horsepower because that was the industry standard.

Ultimately, these organizations also developed a strategy that if they could achieve regulation changes aimed at putting additional fish in the river through commercial fishing restrictions and closures then they would not need to address in-river conservation measures to protect you. Of course, as you know, this philosophy failed miserably because it only produced a few additional fish that could then be harvested off of your unprotected spawning beds.

Second, State and Federal agencies responsible for your wellbeing failed to protect you when you needed it the most. They simply became resolved to the fact that political pressure to support the sport fishing industry had become to great for them to overcome and they did not have the desire or will to change the status quo.

Public officials set aside their mandate to protect the resource — trading it for political gain and in the case of ADF&G for agency funding.  Fishing opportunity and increased license sales took priority over conservation.

In addition, ADF&G would not admit for 25 years that they could not count your members with any degree of accuracy.  This led to a significant increased risk of over harvest which ultimately contributed to your demise.

To make matters worse, in 1996 the BOF authorized a new “Personal Use Dip-net” fishery that resulted in even more harvest potential. It all started innocently enough with a small annual harvest of a few hundred of your brethren, however, as this fishery grew to accommodate over 20,000 households the harvest grew to between 1,000 to 1,500 annually.

In the end, you figured that when your numbers got so low the agencies would surely step in to protect you but that didn’t happen either. They were caught in a catch-22. They were influenced by the tourism industry to keep allowing harvests in the established manner and they couldn’t verify their counting methods to show just how low your returns actually were. Everyone familiar with the river knew they weren’t seeing many of you in your traditional spawning areas anymore, but those anecdotal observations were largely dismissed.

I’m truly sorry that this happened to you. We should have heeded history, but we were just to busy trying to make a living off of you. We failed to properly protect you and fully appreciate how special you really were. Don’t worry though, because we now have an economic engine that needs to be fed so I’m sure there will be demands calling for your genes be cloned in some hatchery somewhere to enhance your legacy in the Kenai River.

When this occurs it will be a sure sign that we truly failed you.

Dwight Kramer is a “Joe Fisherman” private angler and concerned resource user who has fished the Kenai River since 1983.

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thewhop2000 09/27/11 - 11:50 am
Hey Dwight, please give us

Hey Dwight, please give us correct numbers if you are going to use them to make a point. 1996 to 2010 averages, dipnetting king retention was for these years: minimum at 254/ Mean is 788/Maximum was 1509. The average is 788 for all those years.
I can't see an average of 788 being too excessive. Look at it this way, would you want 25,000 households running up and down the grasses from the banks of the Kenai, trying to land a king with a rod and reel? I think the mouth of the river and the beaches help take some of the pressure off the habitat up river. All for an average of a yearly take of 788. I think that is a good trade off in my opinion.
We might love this river to death and since the Kenai is considered the bread basket of Alaska, since it is road accessible to 85% of the state's population, where do we go from here?
Sports fishing keeps the Peninsula in Money. Shut down the King fishery for two years and watch how Soldotna and Kenai will just dry up. We need to work within the framework of what system we have to make changes but slowly.
I love the save a hog program from kenai River sportsfishing Association. We need more programs like that to keep retention in check.
At any rate, keep on the good fight but please use accurate facts in the future.

northernlights 09/27/11 - 12:00 pm
Our fish

the kasilof river is right behind the kenai. Blind leading the blind and they both fall in a ditch. Greed is never satisfied, it cannot be fullfilled, greed has no respect or love, greed values what it can get, not what it can give. the foundation of ALL wars is greed, it will fight and defend its right to take. the loss of our rivers is from greed. Greed is blind to itself, it can only see it in others. I honestly wish that they would close down the kenai river to king fishing for at least 3 years. Oh my gosh, can you imagine the kind of wars that would cause? Greed needs to be exposed and those who support it, if the river were to be closed you will see close up who does all the yelling and screaming, you will persoanly see who they are. I am all for ending it. They will not respect our river until it is completely depleted. No one needs a kenai river king for survival or to feed thier poor little children. Its all about money, always has been and always will be. Out of staters dont need another fish mount, or cases of salmon to sell. Its time to end it. but I dont know how.

jimbob 09/29/11 - 05:24 pm
Time to Act

Mr. Kramer does a good job of showing the situation on the Kenai. It is time to act to save the Kings. I would support limiting the guides to four days each week, two drift boat and two power boat from 10 am to 6pm. I would support closing the river to all catching of kings for three days each week. If the return of Kings is dismal, emergency closures of king fishing should be implemented sooner than later. Dip netters should not be allowed to retain Kings. The commercial season should be shortened until it is demonstrated that the Kings are rebounding. I know many will disagree, but something should be done now and the vise should be tightened if things dont get better soon.

thewhop2000 09/29/11 - 10:15 pm
not allowed to retain kings??

Oh, I get it with all your infinite wisdom, let us unleash 30 thousand households upon the vegetation of the kenai so those same dipnetters can try to catch one with a rod and reel, instead of a lousy average of 788 per year by net? Yea, you got it so right???
It must be nice to tell your neighbor that you can keep a king with a rod but if he does it with a dipnet, he can't. Really good thought process there??????????

AKMaineIac 09/30/11 - 07:45 am
Not allowed to retain kings...

They tell you you can't keep one if it's caught in a certain place on the river. They tell you you can't keep one if it's caught on a treble hook and not a single hook. If you hook it by the wrong end you have to let it go.

I don't think it's a far cry to say, "It's a sportfish once it gets in the river. Catch it on an artificial lure, on a rod or pole, or release it when you catch it otherwise."

Stand on the beach and snag em on the way in, or grab em with a net, in the salt water. Once they're swimming in fresh water, they should either spawn or take their place on a dinner plate and in a freezer.

What will increase the number of fish swimming up river to spawn? What will increase the size of the fish swimming up river to spawn? What will increase the survival of the young salmon to get out into the ocean to grow?

I'm no fish biologist but I have done some reading. Those appear to be the questions needing to be answered. Some of us, we won't like the answers. We're entitled to our opinions, but not our own reality. Those answers are the same for all of us.

LHART11 09/30/11 - 09:52 am
whop2000 get it together, look in mirror

Hey Mr. thewhop2000. Kramer has the numbers right.

It's people like you who have ruined the fishery, by trying to spin the numbers, encourage economic priority, calling for "slow changes", and giving praise to the Kenai River Sportfishing Association - the biggest offender.

As head of the Dipnetter's Association, you've burried yourself so deep in your own special interests that you completely missed Kramer's point about ALL of the demands the Kings have endured to the point of disaster.

Given the critical situation of the Kings, even 788 ("average") is too many. You should be working hard to support no retention of Kings in the dipnet fishery. The dipnet fishery was intended for Sockeye, and with millions of them available to harvest, dipnetters don't need a rare and precious King.

Get it together thewhop2000, or get out of the way.

spybot 09/30/11 - 11:11 am
Buried in special interest

Buried in special interests? Is that why Mr. Kramer doesn't talk a blip about the largest harvester of Kenai River king salmon in July - that would be the east side set nets. Not a peep regarding what regulations they might use to reduce the harvest of kings in the set nets.

Also, Kramer focuses on size of kings - anyone who follows king salmon in Alaska knows that their is a cyclic nature of kings in Alaska, primarily influenced by ocean productivity. When conditions are good, more than two million kings come back to Alaska rivers, larger size, older age class, more abundance. When conditions are not so good (not enough food), less than one million kings come back to Alaska rivers, smaller in size, earlier age class, less abundant.

What is happening on the Kenai River relative to the smaller size, earlier age of return, and low abundance is being seen across the state in every major river system.

So pointing the finger exclusively at in-river factors such as habitat or guide hours basically misses the bulls-eye, which is not unexpected from Mr. Kramer.

kenai-king 10/01/11 - 06:59 am
Kenai Kings

Nice Article Dwight about time somebody tells it like it is!!!!

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