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The human element

Posted: January 9, 2014 - 4:19pm

With an important Board of Fisheries meeting in the offing, I feel the urge to comment on some nagging king salmon issues.

In recent years, we’ve seen what happens when king salmon returns to Cook Inlet are poor. Virtually every fishery is adversely affected. In 2013, anyone with an interest in either sport or commercial salmon fishing lost fishing opportunity. The cultural and economic impacts to Kenai Peninsula communities were staggering.

I believe we’ll eventually learn that the low king salmon returns we’re now experiencing are of a cyclical nature, or due to something else in the vast and complex marine environment, mostly beyond human control. The same or similar cycles have no doubt occurred many times in the past. What’s different about this time — and what makes this issue so complicated and frustrating — is the human element.

In the early 1800s, humans had little impact on Pacific salmon. We hadn’t yet blocked, diverted or polluted the streams that salmon require for breeding and rearing. In the ocean, we hadn’t yet invented the gear and means to efficiently locate, harvest, store and ship salmon. The salmon’s coastal habitat was mainly uninhabited, and humans had little effect on salmon or their fresh-water habitats. If salmon could talk, they’d probably say these were the good-old days. Those days were numbered when the first salmon canneries were established in the Northwest, in the 1860s.

We’ve learned a lot about salmon — what’s left of them — since the 1860s, but there still is much we don’t know. This might be a good thing. If we knew everything about salmon, we’d be trying to find a way to further “optimize” the harvest, so we could kill as many as possible, or so we could hook and play with as many as possible.

Regarding the Cook Inlet drainage, the human element has dramatically changed in the past few decades. There now are far more of us vying for salmon in both the marine and fresh-water salmon fisheries than there were only a few decades ago. What’s worse, there will be far more of us in the not-so-distant future.

What we actually have is a people problem that’s being framed as a king salmon problem. Call it what you will, the only sure fix is to reduce human impact on Alaska’s salmon.

There should be fewer permits and less gear fishing commercially in Cook Inlet. A reduction of permits and gear should’ve been done years ago. A buy-back should be done now, while the state has the ability. What better use of the Permanent Fund than to protect our most valuable renewable resource?

There should be less commercial use of not only the Kenai River, but of all Alaska’s waters. Sport fishing on the Kenai has become industrialized to the point where it’s destructive. Selling someone a fishing trip on a “world-class” river is a joke that’s less funny — and less profitable — with each passing year.

The number of guides and rental boats on the Kenai River should be limited. Now, with the numbers reduced due to poor king returns, would be a good time to do it. Like the intense commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, guides put more fishing pressure on the Kenai River than this river can tolerate. The public would support this action, and the remaining guides would be better off for it.

State, federal and private funds should be used to make the Kenai River more drift-boat friendly, and the number of power boats on the river at any one time should be reduced and limited. No one can say with a straight face that salmon thrive with power boats running over their spawning grounds day and night.

While it may be arguable whether reducing human activity in the Cook Inlet drainage will help restore the area’s king salmon runs from their present dismal state, the positive effects of such action would reach far into the future. I would hope that lawmakers and others with the ability to shape the destiny of Alaska’s salmon will look forward to this future and act accordingly.

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

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