Putting fish first is a challenging proposition

Put fish first -- it's a sentiment that certainly sounds good. At first glance, it's a straightforward proposition, something we can all get behind.

But when we start to get into specifics about which fish should be a priority, putting fish first is much easier said than done.

Currently, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has restricted sport fisheries for king salmon across the Kenai Peninsula in an effort to conserve as many fish as possible in Peninsula streams. Conservation measures have also extended to the commercial setnet fishery, where nets were kept on the beach for the second time this week, in part to conserve kings headed to their spawning beds.

Right now, those decisions are relatively easy to swallow. Fish and Game biologists are projecting the early Kenai River king run to be the lowest on record, with the king run on the Kasilof River not doing much better. The Kasilof's sockeye salmon have been slow to return as well, and the bottom line is getting fish in the rivers.

But as the season continues, management decisions might be tougher to make and harder to accept. Whether sport fish guides or commercial setnetters, people's livelihoods are at stake. One guide told the Clarion recently that current Kenai River king restrictions will put some operations out of business; the same holds true in the commercial fishery, where one opening can make or break a season.

Unless a new emergency order is issued, come Sunday, sport fishermen will be allowed to wet a line for king salmon in the Kenai River, albeit with several restrictions in place. If the river is open for kings, arguments against setnet openings lose their urgency.

Fish and Game has forecast a strong return of sockeye for the Kenai River, and as the department found last year, managing for an abundance of sockeye while trying to conserve the king run comes with its own set of challenges.

"When you have a mixed stock fishery you will sacrifice the harvest of the strong stock, the dominant stock numerically, to make sure you're achieving the minimum goal of the weaker stock numerically is kings," Pat Shields, Fish and Game commercial fisheries are manager, told the Clarion.

Complicating the management process is the number of user groups putting pressure on the fishery -- and demanding a voice in the management planning process. Fish allocation issues are nothing new to Cook Inlet; indeed, they've been dubbed the fish wars for a reason. But the divide is no longer simply trying to balance commercial and sport fishing interests. Now, management objectives must take into account the exploding personal-use fisheries. And the number of guides on the river isn't getting any smaller.

Which brings us back to our initial proposition of putting fish first. If fisheries management were simply about managing fish, decisions might be difficult, but they'd be straightforward, based on the best science available. But fisheries management also involves economics, many people's livelihoods, politics, and even state constitutional arguments. And when all that is taken into account, putting fish first becomes a whole lot harder to do.

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