Another summer of discontent

One of the main reasons I live on the Kenai Peninsula is for the fishing. Like most of us who live here, I’m less than content when the fishing isn’t good.

In mid-May, seeing that only a dribble of kings were coming into the Kenai River, the Department of Fish and Game closed the river to the harvest of king salmon. That was good, but they left it open to catch-and-release fishing for kings, which was bad. Their stated reason was to provide more sport-fishing opportunity, but the real reason they do this is purely economical. Alaska’s outrageously over-capitalized sport-fishing industry, using the Board of Fisheries and the Department of Fish and Game to make catch-and-release of salmon state policy, brought us to this level, where we allow anglers to play with salmon that aren’t returning in large enough numbers to sustain their populations.

If I were to tell you that the state was proposing to make it legal for hunters on all-terrain vehicles to lasso moose and caribou, wrestle them to a standstill, take a couple of “trophy” photos and let the animals go, you’d probably consider the idea unethical, outrageous, unthinkable. Yet, that’s pretty much what anglers do when they catch and release fish just for the fun of it. Whether it’s a moose or a king salmon, the animal is fighting for its life. By even the most warped definition of the word, is this “sporting”? We don’t even know why king salmon are scarce, and yet we subject them to abuse and cause them stress. How do we justify this in times of scarcity?

Every year since the 1970s, I’ve spent many days fishing for king and silver salmon on the Kenai River. Due to last year’s pitiful runs, I didn’t fish the Kenai for kings at all. I tried for silvers three times, and my total catch was a few tired pink salmon and one small silver.

This year’s fishing looks even worse. As of June 13, the escapement estimate for early-run Kenai River kings was only 27 percent of last year’s dismal count. Only an estimated 795 king salmon had gone upstream to spawn. Because it’s unlikely that enough kings will enter the river by June 30 to reach the escapement goal, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has issued an Emergency Order that closes the Kenai River to king salmon fishing from June 20-June 30. Upstream from a regulatory marker located 300 yards downstream from Slikok Creek, the Kenai is closed to king salmon fishing through July 14. The so-called late run of Kenai River king salmon, set to begin July 1, is also predicted to be a poor run. The outlook is grim for future years, given the depressed returns.

Some people like to blame the poor king salmon returns on something tangible, such as trawler by-catch — mainly kings caught incidentally by trawlers fishing for pollock. Others point at mismanagement by the Board of Fisheries and the Department of Fish and Game. The real cause of whatever is impacting state-wide king returns is probably so complex and ever-changing that it will never be found. Even if scientists can somehow determine the cause, it’s not realistic to think they’ll be able to do anything about it.

On another issue, with salmon being such a sensitive issue locally, you might think we’d have model laws to protect them. Instead, we have the same old objections by property owners and land developers that eventually led to failures and outright extinctions of salmon runs throughout the Pacific Northwest. One good thing on this front: On Tuesday of this week, the Borough Assembly voted 6-3 against an ordinance that would have repealed the existing ordinance. The assembly also introduced Ordinance 2013-18, which would amend certain parts of the existing ordinance. I’m wondering if we’ll ever have a version of an anadromous waters protection ordinance that will stand up to so much selfish, mule-headed opposition by property owners. If we can’t have good salmon habitat here, where salmon are so key to why we’re here at all, can it exist anywhere?

I have yet to fish the Kenai this year. A large part of my reason for loving this place is gone, and no one knows why or for how long. It’s not without good reason that I’m discontented. On the bright side, I have plenty of company.

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

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