On Tuesday night of this week, New Year’s Eve, I caught a 55-pound king salmon. The event was so exciting that I woke up and couldn’t get back to sleep.
I’ve dreamed about fish and fishing before, but this time was different. It didn’t involve fishing, hooking or boating a big fish. Instead, it was only about having a king salmon in my possession, taking it home and eating it.
It’s likely that I dreamed up this fish because I couldn’t have it in the real world. The only king salmon I caught in 2013 was a small “feeder” king, taken in March on a charter boat out of Homer. Like most other people who were concerned about the poor runs of Kenai River kings in recent years, I didn’t fish for them in 2013.
Thinking about this dream on the day after, I realized that it focused on what was most important to me about salmon fishing: the use of salmon for food. It’s outrageous that salmon can be caught and released just for “sport,” killing about one for every 15 caught while having fun and getting a photo of a “trophy” fish. And it’s even more outrageous that catch-and-release of kings is allowed during runs when it’s doubtful that the spawning escapement is adequate to sustain the stock.
Trouble is, a large and influential group not only wants to be able to catch and release king salmon, but needs to do so. In the 1970s, I considered commercial fishermen to be the main adversaries of those of us who like to fish with rod and reel, but no more. The biggest threat now is the sport-fishing industry, as represented by Kenai River guides and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA).
So many guides now depend upon the Kenai River, they seriously impact other fisheries whenever the Kenai is restricted. Without catch-and-release fishing, fishing guides have little to sell their clients during years of poor runs. In years when an insufficient number of kings enter the Kenai to ensure an adequate spawning escapement, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issues Emergency Orders. “EOs” that close the Kenai to king salmon fishing and EOs that allow only catch-and-release fishing make the fishery unpredictable. When it’s unpredictable for two or three years in a row, guides start looking for other ways to make a living.
In 2002, Kenai River guides and the KRSA tried to ban all harvest, making the early run exclusively a “fun” fishery. “Catch-and-release only” for early-run Kenai River kings came very close to becoming regulation. Instead, with an aim to make the fishery more “stable and predictable,” the Board of Fisheries slashed nearly all of the early-run harvest. Together with a non-retention, 40- to 55-inch “slot limit,” the board slashed the annual early-run harvest to one-sixth of what it had been in prior years, from an average of 6,900 fish to less than 1,200. This action marked the first time ever that a traditional Alaskan salmon harvest fishery had been replaced by a catch-and-release fishery. This regulation triggered years of conflict and divisiveness in the community, some of which lingers still.
At the February 2002 fish-board meeting, KRSA board member and fishing guide Pat Carter told the Anchorage Daily News, “The Kenai is so special it shouldn’t just be treated as another meat fishery.”
In the Clarion (Feb. 15, 2002), KRSA executive director Brett Huber said about the Kenai’s king salmon fishery, “Perhaps it’s time to treat this like other trophy fisheries, like we do with rainbow trout.”
When local residents became fully aware of the ramifications of the new regulation, that the fast-growing sport-fishing industry was now powerful enough to sway the board into making catch-and-release a priority for king salmon, they became deeply concerned. If the board would do this on the Kenai River, they could do it anywhere. Were we now going to start managing Alaska’s salmon like trophy trout, just catching and releasing them for sport? If so, as guide numbers increased, all accessible salmon fishing could end up being managed not for a harvest, but exclusively for fun fishing.
Those of us who consider the catching and eating of salmon almost a holy ritual drew a line in the sand. Realizing that the guides were in it mainly for the money, and that state bureaucrats weren’t going to help, we set out to change the regulation and restore a reasonable opportunity for harvest. It took several months, but we eventually convinced the fish board that most Alaskans wanted to have an occasional salmon on their dinner table more than they wanted Kenai River fishing guides to have stable and predictable jobs.
Eleven years have passed since the guides and KRSA tried to make playthings of Kenai River kings. The danger that they could again convince the fish board to do this is greater than ever. If they decide to try when the board meets in Anchorage later this month, they should remember what happened in 2002. “Joe Fisherman” won’t idly sit by while the industry converts the Kenai River king salmon fishing to “catch-and-release only.” Taking home a king salmon should be more than just a dream.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.