Since the early 1970s, when I first started fishing Kenai Peninsula waters, this is the first year I haven't fished for king salmon in a stream. It's also the first time I haven't cooked a first-king-of-the-year to celebrate the occasion.
I'm not alone. The fish that put Soldotna on the map has let everyone down. King salmon returns to all Alaska streams are at record or near-record lows.
Biologists say the cause of the poor king returns is unknown. They say something is happening in the ocean, but they don't know what. To ensure that enough kings escape to spawn, Alaska Department of Fish and Game has severely restricted all users -- sport, personal-use, commercial and subsistence.
When the kings don't show, it's one thing to lose out on the thrill of feeling a king on your line and of seeing a big steak on your plate. It's another thing to suffer an economic loss. The economic hit caused by weak king salmon runs will be huge. Sport fishing in Alaska is a $1.4 billion industry, and fishing for the state fish is an industry staple.
For the past few years, the flagging economy, the high price of fuel and poor king salmon fishing was already making people think twice about trying to catch a king while vacationing in Alaska. Now they're looking at the slim odds of even being able to fish for one. People are canceling trips and bookings. As a result, hundreds of local people are hurting, frustrated, desperate.
Charter outfits that have most of their eggs in the king salmon basket are in the most trouble, but they're not alone. East-side setnetters, who take about the same number of king salmon with gill nets as Kenai River sport fishermen take with hooks, are being shut down by Fish and Game to allow adequate king salmon escapement. Local businesses that benefit from fishing -- that's all local businesses -- won't benefit as much this year. Sales tax revenue will be down, forcing cities and the borough to cut services, increase taxes or both.
Kings, especially when scarce, generate king-size controversy. This summer's main controversy may well center on how often state fishery managers close east-side setnetting fishing periods in order to allow kings to escape into the Kenai River. The tension is already building.
On Monday, a group of about 50 concerned fishermen, mainly Kenai River fishing guides, held a "king salmon preservation rally" in front of the Fish and Game offices in Soldotna. Organizers hoped to rally people to demand that the burden of conservation of king salmon be shared equally by all user groups. The organizers' handout encouraged people to write to the Governor, the Fish and Game Commissioner and Board of Fisheries members, ending with the ironical admonition: "... put politics behind us and make conservation our priority."
Given what's at stake, I'm satisfied -- or at least hopeful -- that Fish and Game will close the setnetting at appropriate times. However, I have qualms about them using catch-and-release fishing as a conservation measure. Salmon get only one chance to reproduce their kind. You can't catch and release a fish without injuring or killing it. Pretending otherwise is just fooling yourself. Yet, from Sunday, July 15 through July 31, current regulations will allow you to fish for kings from the mouth of the Kenai to Skilak Lake, 50 miles of river, and to harvest kings over 55 inches in length. That's absurd. Fishing for kings will be allowed at Super Hole, Thompson's Hole and other river reaches where kings are known to spawn in July. Big, red fish will be pulled off of their redds, just when they are most vulnerable. That people will be fishing for these spawning kings when the run is in peril is unthinkable.
Unless the run improves dramatically over the next few days, fishing for Kenai River kings should be banned, period. That said, if thousands of kings are dying in gillnets, it's tough to sell the idea that people shouldn't be allowed to play with a few of them on their spawning grounds, just for sport. After all, a dead king is a dead king, regardless of where it dies.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.