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On dipnetting

Posted: December 13, 2012 - 5:04pm

Every year for the past 20 or so, I’ve taken my winter supply of sockeye salmon with hook and line from the Kenai River. I’ve immensely enjoyed that fishing, but this year was different. This year, all my sockeyes were caught in the dipnet fishery at the mouth of the river.

Some of you are thinking, “Palmer’s getting old.” I won’t argue about that, but I prefer to think that I’ve evolved.

Maybe you’ve noticed, it has become more and more difficult to find a decent place to fish on the Kenai River without being in a crowd. When I was younger, I didn’t mind the competition. Now I do.

I’ve noticed that sockeyes caught at the mouth of the Kenai are in better condition than those caught further upstream. At the mouth, a sockeye hasn’t yet fully matured, so much of its fat is in its flesh. Upstream 40 or 50 miles, most of its fat has been used to make roe and milt. Not that an “upstream” fish isn’t good eating, but the fatter, “downstream” fish is better.

Something I can’t help but notice is that the dipnet fishery has little or no impact on fish habitat. When anglers fish for sockeyes along the river, they destroy the vegetation along the banks, resulting in increased erosion and loss of habitat for juvenile salmon. For every dipnetter at the river’s mouth, there are two less people flogging the water from the bank, trying to hook a sockeye in the mouth.

The Kenai dipnet fishery is an amazing story. Starting in 1996, when about 10,000 dipnetters took home about 100,000 reds, the numbers of both dipnetters and fish have steadily increased. In 2011, about 30,000 dipnetters harvested more than 500,000 reds, catching more than 100,000 in a single day. Numbers for 2012 are expected to be even higher, and there’s no end in sight.

The City of Kenai, though it didn’t start this thing, has done a remarkable job of making it tolerable for everyone involved. While fish waste and trash remain on-going issues, the city will no doubt alleviate them.

Cleaning up the trash and fish waste is going to be expensive, and it seems only fair that dipnetters should bear the cost. The Kenai administration has proposed additional Dumpsters for trash and three fish-cleaning stations on the north bank of the river for the 2013 season. Up to eight people at a time would be able to clean and wash off their fish at each station. According to the plan, carcasses would be put into totes, which contractors will dispose of “in any legal manner.” Hopefully, this waste will be made into some useable product, such as fish meal or fertilizer. It definitely shouldn’t go into the Borough landfill or into a ditch, where it would attract bears.

How much users will pay is up for discussion. State legislators appropriated $150,000 to Kenai for “the design and manufacture of three fish cleaning stations,” but that’s only part of the cost. The City of Kenai administration proposes doubling parking fees and increasing other fees by 50 percent. This year, parking was $15 for 12 hours. The proposed fee for 2013 is $30, and the hours would be increased to 24. Boat launch fees from July 10-July 31 would jump from $15 to $20. The Kenai City Council has a work session scheduled for Jan. 7, 2013, at 6 p.m. in City Hall to discuss the proposed user fees.

Some local residents grouse about the dipnet fishery, but I’m not one of them. For Alaskans interested in taking part in the harvest of good, nutritious food, it’s the best thing that ever happened.

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

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