Legislation proposing a $10 fee for personal-use dipnet fishing in the Kasilof and Kenai Rivers is short on words, but big on response, according to its sponsor, Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna.
"I'm getting a lot of flack," Lancaster said of the legislation targeting the 21-day fishery. "E-mails (have been arriving) just nonstop, and I've had phone calls. Some of these e-mails aren't so nicely worded."
The legislation was introduced after Lancaster heard about damage done by fishers to riverbanks and personal property, nonresidents participating in the fishery and the absence of enforcement. Lancaster said the proposed fee could be used to protect the habitat or go toward enforcement. According to the legislation's accompanying sponsor statement, the fee could turn the 10,000 to 15,000 permits issued annually into revenues totaling as much as $150,000.
Conversations with representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game led the Soldotna legislator to believe they favored such a fee.
"I've talked to some of those folks and they didn't oppose me verbally over the phone," he said. "They recognize the issues that surround this fishery and seemed to be supportive."
On Friday, callers to a peninsula radio call-in talk show questioned who was behind introduction of the bill and pointed an accusing finger at Kenai Mayor John Williams.
"Williams wasn't one of the ones that asked me to do this," Lancaster said. "That's a fact. I'm not trying to shove anything down people's throats, but people need to recognize the concern that's out there."
Williams also said he was not involved in the introduction of the bill.
"However, I do support the concept if, in fact, the revenue generated from those fees is returned in the form of better protection officers there at the beach, better services to the general public or protection of the environment," Williams said. "If that's what the fees are used for, then I support it."
According to the Kenai mayor, the city invested in excess of $200,000 to provide parking near the mouth of the Kenai River, and Dragnet Fisheries donated cement pillars to outline the parking area. A law enforcement officer, paid with $16,000 in revenues generated by the city's $5 parking fee, "keeps order, monitors the parking lot and makes sure there's not a lot of unruly activity."
"The entire fishery was presented to the city of Kenai without any means of support whatsoever," Williams said. "Only after the fact did we get interest from the state in helping us out a little bit."
Constituents weren't the only ones surprised by Lancaster's move.
"I should have talked to my colleagues from the peninsula," he said, referring to lack of discussion with Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, and Drew Scalzi, R-Homer. "They're getting copies of all my e-mails."
Chenault agreed that problems exist with the fishery.
"The state decided the Kenai and Kasilof rivers are where the personal dipnet fisheries were going to take place. But no one in the public sector was involved in that decision," Chenault said. "They created a problem.
"The city of Kenai spent I don't know how much money in that area trying to keep people off the sand dunes and protect the environment," he said. "And I think there's the same type of problems with the Kasilof River."
Chenault said he didn't know if Lancaster's legislation was the way to address concern regarding the fishery, but said he viewed it as a start.
Other suggestions are already surfacing, according to Lancaster.
"Maybe there could be something like a king salmon or duck stamp where you pay $5 and they put a sticker on the back of your fishing license. Maybe that's the way to go," Lancaster said. "I've had people tell me to pull the bill, but somebody's going to have to convince me first."
Kevin Dougherty, a dipnet fisher from Soldotna, expressed concern over the proposed fee and offered a suggestion for enforcing existing laws.
"They talk about it going towards enforcement, but I'm not sure," he said. "It just seems like the state is trying to find lots of different ways to raise revenue and justify permit fees and extra registrations."
Dougherty suggested hiring college students to be positioned at the Kenai City dock.
"They could just check permits," he said. "Not even count fish; just check for permits.
"If there are people who are nonresidents or who don't have permits, that would probably put a scare into anyone. It would not be such an expensive way to attempt enforcement. That, in itself, might be a deterrent, and it might not cost an arm and a leg."
Lancaster and Chenault anticipate hearing from other peninsula residents.
"We'll see where this goes and listen to more public comment," Chenault said. "Kenai, K-Beach and Nikiski areas are my constituents. I want to hear their input on it, and we'll make a decision which way to go."
Lancaster also expressed that the public should get involved. He said he anticipated the district teleconference scheduled for Feb. 8 would provide an opportunity for more feedback.
"It'll be an exciting evening, I'm sure," Lancaster said.
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