Earlier this month, the Clarion ran a story about Greg Brush, a local fishing guide who said he’s going to stop letting his clients kill Kenai River king salmon. Due to last year’s weak run of kings and a gloomy forecast for this year, he’s switching to catch-and-release only, except “those kings fatally hooked during the fight that would otherwise die will be harvested, when legal,” he said. Brush acknowledged that it wouldn’t make a difference in the fishery or the run, but said he wanted to make a statement.
I have a better statement: Don’t fish for Kenai River kings at all.
I didn’t fish for Kenai River kings in 2012, and I won’t fish for them this year, if the run is weak. Sure, I want to be on the river, sitting in the warm sun, watching summer happen while I wait for a bite. That’s a large part of why I live here. But the idea of fishing during a weak run, hooking a salmon and “playing” it until it’s tired enough that I can pull it in and unhook it, then wondering if it will die from the ordeal, well, that takes the joy out of it.
Using catch-and-release fishing to conserve salmon is a bad idea, and a controversial one. Pacific salmon get only one chance to reproduce their kind. Regardless of good intentions, you can’t catch and release a fish without injuring it. At the very least, you cause the fish stress, making it struggle to escape and fight for its life. At worst, it dies. To pretend that you’re doing no harm is just fooling yourself.
Until the king runs improve, not fishing for kings at all is the only moral choice. Trouble is, money is now a force in every decision-making process. Not fishing is out of the question for the tens of thousands of people who have staked their fortunes in fishing. Too many guides, lodges and other businesses have invested in the Kenai River king salmon fishery. Too many commercial fishermen are fishing on mixed salmon stocks in Cook Inlet, complicating the management of king salmon fisheries. Too many local governments fear losing tax revenues. Too many people are facing bankruptcy, moving from the area or having to find some other way than fishing to make a living. When you’re in survival mode, you don’t spend much time stewing about what’s moral and what’s not.
The anguish of local fishermen and business owners reminds me of what happened in New England when the Atlantic cod fishery went bust. There, fishermen thought they could go out and make a living by harvesting a commonly owned resource, while fishery managers thought they were managing the fishing well enough for it to be sustainable. I see the same thing happening here.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and our state’s overblown sport-fishing industry are intent on what fishery managers refer to as “maximizing opportunity.” Catch-and-release fishing helps do this by allowing fishing to continue even during poor salmon runs, they argue. I disagree. To me, it’s arguable whether maximizing anything is wise, even in times of plenty. When not enough salmon are returning to ensure survival of their kind, maximizing opportunity is a recipe for disaster.
Fish and Game bought into catch-and-release fishing for salmon years ago. With catch-and-release, the agency can conserve salmon and maximize fishing opportunity at the same time. Without catch-and-release fishing, the state wouldn’t sell as many fishing licenses and king salmon stamps to non-residents, who fund most of the Department’s programs.
Catching trout for fun, just to play with them and turn them loose is one thing, but catching a fish that has a tradition of being used only for food since time immemorial is something else. Add to that the fact that our salmon have just one opportunity in its life to recreate their own kind, and the full enormity of catching and releasing them for “sport” becomes glaringly obvious, especially when a salmon run is weak.
Will my not fishing for Kenai kings make a difference in the fishery or the run?
Not if I’m the only one not fishing. However, I think that many of us think catching — let alone catching and releasing — king salmon during a weak run is not just wrong, but immoral. If none of us fish for Kenai kings, it will do more than make a statement. It will put more kings on the spawning grounds.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.