In turbid waters

An Outdoor View

While trying to fathom what’s happening fishing-wise on the Kenai Peninsula this summer, I recalled one of my earliest fishing adventures, fishing in a mud puddle on the edge of the road near my house. I didn’t catch anything in that murky puddle, but at least I was fishing, unlike what many of us are doing this year.


This year, there are dismal king salmon returns statewide, attributed to unknown causes in the ocean. In order to allow enough king salmon to escape upstream and spawn in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, set gill-netting has been closed; drift gill-netting, restricted. Sport king fishing on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers has been completely closed, and harvest of kings in personal-use and subsistence fisheries has been banned. In all Cook Inlet salt waters north of Bluff Point, sport fishing for kings is closed.

I’m surprised that people were surprised by these developments. It was only a matter of time until a poor king return coincided with a strong sockeye return. Yet, some people are raving, speculating wildly and casting accusatory nets in all directions, desperate for someone or something to blame. A story in the Clarion about dipnetting hours being extended and sockeye sport-fishing bag limits being increased to six per day drew 20 comments by on-line readers. On the other hand, I’m heartened by the number of people who have remained calm and thoughtful about the various fishing closures. I only wish there were more of them.

Most seasoned Alaskans know better than to involve politicians in any argument that involves fish. It worries me that the Board of Fisheries is getting involved today (July 27). I’m for letting the biologists do what’s right to conserve the fish.

Getting fish board members involved in in-season management isn’t good. I also have misgivings about the involvement of fishing guides, lodge owners, commercial fishermen, fish processors — anyone with a financial interest involving fish. When conservation of a species is at stake, people with money at stake can’t be trusted to do what must to be done.

Department of Fish and Game managers have my respect and sympathy. Theirs is a thankless job, at best. When they closed the east-side gillnet fishery, they were accused of mismanagement, but with the king salmon return to the Kenai River at a record low, they had no choice. To their credit, they also closed all other fishing for kings that might be bound for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, including sport and personal use. I was pleasantly surprised that even catch-and-release fishing was closed. Accusations that these decisions were influenced by “political pressure” are unfair and ungrounded.

To make one thing clear, I hold no ill will against setnetters as a group. In this column (Aug. 19, 1988), I came out against the Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s “Project Us,” which would’ve removed set gillnetting from the east-side of Cook Inlet. In that column, I wondered why the state didn’t initiate a study on how the design, number, location or operation of set gillnets might be modified to decrease their incidental catch of king salmon. 

 As many late-run kings are harvested in set gillnets as sport fishermen harvest with hook and line. More than 20 years have passed, and neither the state nor the industry has yet undertaken a study and modified the fishing method accordingly. I’m still wondering.

But then again, many things about people, salmon and the proper management of both remain as unfathomable to me as that mud puddle where I fished as a child. 

Les Palmer can be reached at