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Voices of the Peninsula: Kenai kings face long odds

Posted: January 19, 2014 - 3:58pm

The Kenai king controversy has connected some dots for me. I was born in Alaska in 1950 and raised on the banks of the Kenai River. I have collected empirical data (“a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation”) with regard to Kenai kings and the Kenai River for 63 years. I have witnessed the changes; the tendency over the past 40 years towards overuse, overharvest, and in-river habitat destruction. There have been all kinds of warning signals for many years that the Kenai king (and more importantly, the in-river habitat) is in distress, but the Board of Fisheries has not looked at the big picture, preferring instead to tinker with “small ball” actions such as slot limits or the use of barbless hooks or escapement goals.

The fact that Kenai kings for 40 years have been not only interrupted but aggravated on their in-river spawning habitat by up to 600 boats per day seems to be of little concern to the regulators. There is no sanctuary for spawners! Why would it be a mystery that Kenai kings are in trouble?

The serious erosion of the river bank caused by large boats throwing off wakes all summer long has received little discussion. The riverbanks are a critical part of fish habitat. In my lifetime I have observed the slow motion destruction of the riverbanks. Where there once were continuous mats of grass, alders, and vegetation, there are now major gaps where cobble exists and the finer particulates have been washed away by boat wakes. In the area of the river that I haunted as a youngster, I estimate that 30 – 40 percent of the original riverbank is now gone. Yes, this is empirical data. I am unaware of a scientific study that verifies this, but you need only look at other river systems in Alaska (the upper Kasilof, for instance) to develop a comparison to the destruction that has occurred on the Kenai.

While connecting the management dots, take a look at razor clam populations on the East side of Cook Inlet. This was once a vibrant and productive area, as any “old timer” would attest to. Today, the clams are few and small. The cause? (from my empirical notebook) In a word, overharvest. For 40 years ADF&G and the Board of Fish maintained bag limits that were too generous and not sustainable. For 40 years, every series of low tides between April and September brought many thousands of diggers to these clam beaches. We heard occasional assurances from the “clam scientists” that all was well, or that a winter storm was the problem. The real problem: clams were harvested at a rate that was not sustainable. They were unable to reproduce at a rate that would provide for return to abundance. The Board of Fisheries took no corrective action until recent years, and now it may be too little too late. With no adequate science, the short term interests of the harvester took precedence over any thought of maintaining a sustainable clam population. We have reached such a point of decline due to inadequate management that, until we begin acting and legislating for the benefit of a particular species and its habitat rather than merely slowing its’ decline, its eventual demise becomes a probability.

Most species require a minimum biomass in order to remain healthy and dodge the occasional curveball from mother nature. Consider herring in Prince William Sound. The Exxon Valdez oil spill knocked them for such a loop that they still have not recovered. Seemingly, since no one knows what that tipping point is, fish and game managers should always err on the side of the species in question. As a general empirical statement, the Board of Fish has made decisions over the years based not on good science or conservative intent, but based on politics and constituent pressure. The hatchet job done by a sport fish group on a sitting board of fish member who was reappointed last year is example enough about how “the political game” is played.

Hundreds of examples of mismanagement over time exist, and it is unfortunate that those examples go unheeded by our resource managers. Both coasts of the United States illustrate examples of deficient or nonexistent management. Fish species that once were prolific are now nonexistent or endangered. It could be argued that people a hundred years ago were unaware of the negative consequences of overharvest, habitat destruction, and lack of sound management, but that is not an excuse today.

In the case of the Kenai king, the in-river habitat went from pristine in the mid 1970’s to adversely impacted today. I watched it happen. The massive numbers of boats (up to 600 per day), gear, and fishing pressure has virtually eliminated any possible sanctuary for a spawning king. Yes, offshore trawlers catch Kenai kings. Yes, setnetters and other commercial fishermen intercept a few Kenai kings, but not to a degree that explains the dramatic failure of the early run of kings in the Kenai which has not had any commercial fishing pressure for more than 50 years. Since it took 40 years to bring the in-river habitat to its’ current disarray, will it take 40 years to repair it? Maybe not, if fisheries managers are bold and decisive with rulemaking that includes drift only fishing and sanctuaries for spawning kings.

Many of the errors of the past may be too late to correct. Let’s make sure it is not too late for the Kenai king salmon, which will undoubtedly be gone soon if the in-river riparian habitat is not protected and corrected. The Board of Fisheries must not gamble on the future, but take decisive action to improve the in river spawning habitat.

Frank Mullen was born on a homestead on the banks of the Kenai River and is the son of one of Soldotna’s first families. Mullen has been a sport and commercial fisherman all his life, a businessman, and served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly for three terms.

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pengy
253
Points
pengy 01/20/14 - 07:41 am
0
2
If you want to talk about the

If you want to talk about the big picture, why have king fisheries that are in wildlife refuges with no development (Kodiak Is), that have no sportfishing (Nelson River), and are hatchery run (Ship Creek) all in serious decline? The problem is bigger than just habitat (hatchery fish are not dependent on freshwater conditions) . I'm sticking with the the professionals at ADF&G (Tom Vania) who say the decline is because of ocean conditions.

borninak
657
Points
borninak 01/20/14 - 10:09 am
1
0
Big Picture

Pengy you never see the "Big Picture" because you have such a bias toward what you want to believe. Example. The Nushagak and a couple other rivers in Alaska had strong runs last summer and much of the West Coast in Wa, Ca have had very strong returns recently. But you choose to talk about the Nelson River and Ship Creek and state your talking about the big picture? This kind of shoots down all this "its all out in the ocean" mentality. Something may be going on in the ocean but its not effecting every run in the same way. The author of this letter points out some very valid points regarding habitat destruction on the Kenai River and only a fool would dismiss the effects of obvious habitat destruction, unless of course they had something to gain by diverting attention away from some obvious in river problems we should address. Most people are smart enough to see that the Kenai River is out of control, habitat destructive, and destined to kill the last king salmon. "Hey look out there in the salt!" isn't going to cut it any more.

potomac
191
Points
potomac 01/20/14 - 10:37 am
2
0
Thank you Frank, wish greed didn't run the fishery

I first saw this river in 1970, anyone who has seen the banks and watched the erosion from 21 foot guide boats over the years, watched the fish crash on the Kenai, the mob of guides move over to the Kasilof and in a very short time kill it off. It is time to make the Kenai a drift only non guided river and maybe in 40 years someone will see a 7 ocean year fish return in the numbers that once were before all the greed and politics took over the management. It would take a much stronger Government than what keeps being elected now to do the right thing for the Kenai and other major rivers in AK..

pengy
253
Points
pengy 01/20/14 - 05:49 pm
0
1
borninak, I said, "the

borninak, I said, "the problem is bigger than habitat". Maybe I should have been clearer by saying that kings have been affected by 1) ocean conditions, and 2) habitat destruction. Neither are mutually exclusive.

This is a complex problem with complex solutions. If there were an easy fix this would have been resolved a long time ago. Some of the problems are from man, some of this is mother nature, and the devil is in the details of what can or can not be done to improve the stock.

Suss
3878
Points
Suss 01/21/14 - 07:48 am
1
0
Toxic Releases

The two old time laundry sites on the Kenai river have been a concern to many as a source of a slow long term release of known toxins. The other polluted sites along the watershed are a further concern.

http://dec.alaska.gov/Applications/SPAR/CCReports/Site_Report.aspx?Hazar...

http://dec.alaska.gov/spar/csp/sites/kenai.htm

hunteralaska
113
Points
hunteralaska 01/21/14 - 09:23 am
1
0
Death of the King

As a child in the 60's, the Kenai River help provide food for our family. The local moose and bear population also put food on our table. Neither is an option now unless you want to put yourself in danger by the hoards of people taking advantage of the resources so easily handed out by ADF&G. Fighting over resources is nothing new here. I've seen commercial fishermen gathered at Fish & Game offices back in the 70's protesting the increased time and limits of sport fishermen. The sport fishermen invented the Kenai River Classic expressly to invite politicians in hopes of garnering their support for their causes. While it's true that the Kenai River belongs to all the people of Alaska, no one user group should dominate the resource. By allowing citizen advisory groups to pressure policy makers this has happened.

I have commercially fished Cook Inlet and I am an avid sport fisherman. I wholly support the preservation of the resource for all to use. I have not fished commercially since the 70's when the fishing was pretty good. In 1969 the Limited Entry Permit system was established which limits the number of commercial fishing permits in Cook Inlet. The same things should have been done to limit the number of Kenai River fishing guides back when Harry Gaines invited the world to fish this river and they showed up. Harry was my friend and he was trying to make a living, but he didn't see the big picture.

Since that time the Kenai River Kings have been slaughtered by short sighted policy makers, greed, and basic ignorance. The overuse of any resource will eventually lead to its death. And that is exactly what has happened to the Kenai River King. Eroding river banks, over fishing, band aid policy, have all contributed to it. It's sad to see. I hope people realize the good old days are long gone and get involved in preserving what's left.

cormit
226
Points
cormit 01/30/14 - 09:09 am
0
0
What to do?

While the multitude of problems concerning Kenai River kings may be very complex ..... we should focus on the things that we have the ability to fix ...... those things can, and will make a difference.

Kings can't reproduce if they can't spawn. A serious effort needs to be made to identify and map critical spawning areas ...... both main stem and tributary areas. Every effort should be made to eliminate any and all activities that disrupt the natural spawning process in these designated areas. This includes fishing and power boating.

Years of trophy fishing pressure on Kenai's monster size kings has all but eliminated that fish from the gene pool. We now have a river full of jacks. Jacks spawn more jacks. Jacks don't even get counted as kings because of their small size. There is plenty of evidence that we have implemented "selective evolution" on those big fish.

Hook and release may have seemed like a more noble way to conserve a Kenai king, but it is not. The currently used scientific standards for H&R mortality as well as stress related spawning disfunction are no longer acceptable, and new studies are showing that the negative effects of H&R on king salmon is likely much greater than previously thought. H&R on king salmon must end if we want to save them.

Successful spawning is the common thread that joins all users and guardians of Kenai's great king salmon. The way we have been treating "returning to spawn" Kenai kings is not sustainable, and even improved ocean conditions doesn't change that fact.

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