Sustaining on the Kenai

On Monday of this week, while fishing for silver salmon on the lower Kenai River, I boated a silver salmon. This fish was on the small side, about seven pounds, not one of the 10-pound-plus silvers that usually arrive this time of year. Nonetheless, it had special meaning for me. Except for a few tired pink salmon, it was the first salmon I had caught in the Kenai River this year.

I’ve fished the Kenai only three times this year, a record low for the 40 years I’ve been fishing it.

The year began with a poor return of king salmon, so I chose to not fish for them at all. The three times I fished for silvers produced only the one mentioned above, so I’m through for the year.

The main reason I chose to move to the Kenai Peninsula and live here in 1978 was for the excellent king and silver fishing. For these salmon runs to be in such poor condition now is a dark day for me, as well as for many others.

There were times this summer when I could’ve fished the Kenai, but didn’t. When a salmon’s ability to reproduce is threatened, it doesn’t need me bothering it.

Salmon runs are inherently unpredictable, even without degradations by humans of fish habitat. All it takes is a “last straw,” say, a change in ocean temperature or current, and the runs fail to return.

It should by now be obvious to even the most casual observer that being a Kenai River fishing guide or an East-side set netter isn’t a sustainable way of making a living for very many people.

What’s a fisheries manager to do?

If it had been up to me, I’d have closed the Kenai and Kasilof to king salmon fishing for the entire month of July, not just for the final 12 days. There would’ve been no catch-and-release fishing. If there’s no harvestable surplus of salmon, playing with them for “sport” ought to be unthinkable, an attitude that puts me at odds with those who think the economic value of fisheries has priority over all other considerations.

For more than a decade, Kenai River guides and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) have wielded an unhealthy amount of influence on the Alaska Board of Fisheries. In 2002, these groups supported a “catch-and-release-only” fishery, even when there was a harvestable surplus of early-run kings. The board went along with them, but after several months of protest by anglers, most of the it’s-OK-to-play-with-salmon-but-don’t-take-them-home rules were rescinded.

But fighting over natural resources never truly ends. Now the KRSA is asking the fish board to consider changes to the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan when the board meets in January 2013. The current plan is obsolete, the group claims. What’s more, “The existing plan does not assure the long term sustainability for the stock nor does the current language of the plan provide for the orderly conduct of traditional fisheries under current conditions.”

Call me paranoid, but I don’t trust the KRSA or fishing guides to represent the common angler, the “Joe Fisherman” who would rather take home one salmon than play with 50. I’m all for sustainability of the stock, but only by significantly reducing fishing pressure can Kenai River salmon runs ever achieve sustainability.

Reducing the numbers of both Kenai River guides and East-side set netters would be a step in the right direction.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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