Thursday night I attended the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Board, and I returned home near midnight literally full of anguish and disgust, once again reminded of why I swore-off these meetings years ago. I am saddened to say that the confusion (bordering on mayhem) closed-mindedness, personal agendas and one-sided process is alive and well, perhaps stronger than ever!
This should have been no surprise. The previous week's vote to move the meetings from the
sport-fishing friendly environment of the Kenai River Center back to the Cook Inlet Aquaculture
Association building should have forewarned me of things to come, but only a true psychic could have forecast the virtual train wreck that occurred last week.
I can live with a disorganized and poorly run meeting, as one can work through that, eventually coming to logical and effective recommendations with some hard work and honesty. After all, we are all human and the advisory committee is comprised of ordinary members of our community, right?
What exceeded my wildest dreams (nightmares?) was the level of ignorance displayed at this meeting. Now I'm not talking about the lack of knowledge on issues and data, because that comes with the territory when one brings up complex fish politics. In fact, ignorance is fine provided participants are willing to listen to those more educated and knowledgeable on the
issues than them.
Unfortunately, listening never took place. Early-run facts were repeatedly ignored. Input by knowledgeable authorities (our biologists) went in one ear and out the other.
Historic data and trends meant nothing, unless of course it coincidently backed one of the drivers' points. (How can one dispute the department's data when it doesn't line up with one's own agenda, while quoting particular data that happens to support one's points in the very next breath?)
The fact that three out of the last four early runs experienced an exploitation rate of 17 percent meant nothing. The point that the harvest between May 1 and June 5 has been down the last four seasons in a row was not discussed. The
fact that more than 50 percent of the guides early-run clients are local residents and non-guided (i.e., free!) anglers was not taken into account.
Ignored was the fact that guide effort is lower than it was 10 years ago. Never discussed were many of the findings of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's recent "White Paper," such as the fact that seven of the last 10 years Kenai River early-run king returns have exceeded the upper end of the escapement goal and early-run escapement has been met in all but 2002, which would have easily exceeded
minimum escapement goals in effect 1989-1999. Instead, confusion of late run social ills with early run biological issues ruled the meeting. Likewise, the ill-conceived (and virtually impossible) parity issue once again became the coach that screamed "all aboard!"
Let's face it, non-guided anglers already have 126 fishable hours per week, compared to 60 hours per week for guided anglers (based on seven days a week, 18 hours per day.) In other words, many local fishermen choose not to participate in the challenging no-bait, single hook early-run fishery, opting to go elsewhere and-or fish the Kenai during the larger, higher success rate late run.
In sum, you can't force the public to participate, and cutting one user-group's days and hours and allotting more to another user group that chooses not to fish accomplishes nothing. The fact is parity will never be achieved in the early run. Does this mean that all is well and we should advise the Board of Fisheries to take no action on our controversial early run? Should guide numbers remain unchecked? Absolutely not.
Conversely, coming up with livable and effective solutions that address actual problems (as opposed to perceived problems) while considering economic impact is the key. For example, the recent guide moratorium is a much needed, long anticipated and livable solution toward a very real problem, and a great step in the right direction.
Unfortunately for the resource and community, last Thursday night's advisory committee meeting lost sight of any meaningful and effective direction, allowing emotion and misinformation to rule, as one member put otherwise impressive energy into further damaging an already teetering May/June tourism industry with blatant guide-bashing recommendations that accomplish very little for the fish.
Remember, the fact is that current exploitation of the early run by guided and unguided anglers remains at 17 percent, and guided effort and total harvest is down.
Believe it or not, several long-time local guides put the river before their own livelihood, working hard for weeks to come up with real solutions to real problems. This proposal included single-hook-artificial-non-biased harvest fishing, step-down plans (implemented by Fish and Game's emergency order authority) allowing minimal retention of only the very smallest and very largest kings (under 28 inches and over 55 inches) to appease the trophy and meat hunters alike, mandatory registering of all five-ocean fish over 55 inches (to provide the department with much needed management data), spawning confluence (sanctuary) closures to protect vulnerable staging fish, and even a brand new concept that addresses a mass transfer in guide effort in times of conservation concerns (last year's Kasilof fiasco).
Sadly, this civil and effective plan was hardly considered, as the advisory committee opted to adopt unbelievably (and unnecessarily) extreme recommendations such as a one chinook limit, retention of over 55-inch fish only in times of conservation concerns (failing to address the local request for a harvest orientated fishery) and 6 a.m. to 2 p.m. hours for the guided angler which effectively increases the likelihood of crowding and social concerns while accomplishing virtually nothing except bringing hardship upon the guide industry.
Hold onto your hats, as they're not through yet: The subject of closing the fishery above the Soldotna Bridge to all user groups in May and June was scheduled to be addressed at the continuation of this lengthy meeting this week!
Not only do these outlandish measures bring severe hardship to all anglers as well as our entire area, but more importantly they accomplish little for the fishery and actually encourage illegal guiding and increasing pressure on the Kenai's smaller and more vulnerable neighboring rivers, something which the advisory committee never discussed.
Which brings me to one final question: Is the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee's real goal to serve the community with recommendations designed to sustain and protect a vulnerable fishery or is it once again simply an arena for a few locals to take a couple more jabs at a somewhat controversial profession?
Come to your own conclusion, but I encourage anyone who considers themselves open-minded and level-headed to first educate themselves on the true issues and actual facts before jumping on any bandwagon. After all, a witch hunt is the last thing our river, fish or community needs right now.
Greg Brush is a full-time professional fishing guide who has resided in Soldotna year round for the past 14 years. He has been on the board of directors of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association for five years.
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