There's that four-letter word again: fish.
This time it's mentioned in the context of a proposed $10 fee to dipnet on the Kenai River and the Kasilof River.
Although the intent of the legislation proposed by Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, is to raise money for enforcement efforts during this popular personal-use fishery, detractors are using it as an opportunity to pit commercial fishers against sport anglers.
Those detractors are out of line. This is not an allocation issue. This is not a scheme hatched by commercial fishers to get rid of dipnetting. It's not some covert plot to take a fish off a hungry Alaskan's dinner plate or rob Alaskans of their rights. And it's not a food tax.
It is an attempt to bring some order to an increasingly popular fishery. It's an effort to raise funds so some of the problems created by the numbers of people participating in the fishery can be addressed. Those problems include trespassing on private property, parking and growing piles of trash and human waste. The city of Kenai has invested thousands of dollars and lots of employees' time to tackle those issues at the beach at the end of Spruce Street, with good results. The tidal zone across the mouth of the river presents its own challenges to attempts to deal with problems associated with the fishery. Without an organized government to drive some of the solutions, the dipnet fishery at Kasilof has been described as "a mess."
In addition to being able to address some of the habitat concerns created by the dipnet fishery, Lancaster's proposal offers the opportunity to investigate criticisms of the fishery. Anecdotal stories tell of widespread abuse throughout the fishery: nonresidents participating in what is designed to be an all-Alaskan activity, fish being sold for commercial purposes, residents fishing without permits and residents taking more fish than they are allowed.
Enforcement efforts would sort out which of those stories are fact and which are fiction. Finding out how serious and how truthful some of these accusations are could go a long way in calming some of the debate that surrounds the fishery. At the very least, the arguments would go from being based on emotions to being based on facts.
We're dismayed and concerned that some Alaskans think $10 for the privilege of dipnetting on these rivers somehow infringes on their "right" to take "their" fish.
In fact, the real value of Lancaster's legislation may be its symbolic value -- a reminder that just because a resource is a public one doesn't mean that it can be had for free. A small fee for the privilege of dipnetting could help raise people's awareness of the importance of the fish they catch and the place where they catch them. Certainly, the amount of fish Alaskans are allowed to take in these personal-use fisheries are worth far more than $10.
Like it or not, the days when Alaskans could have it all for nothing are over. It's not unreasonable to impose reasonable user fees to help protect resources. And, in essence, that's what a dipnet fee that would go toward enforcement efforts does. Not only would enforcement help curb any abuses that are occurring, but it also has the potential to make the dipnetting experience more enjoyable for everyone. It only takes a few abusers to give all dipnetters a bad reputation.
Dipnetting for reds on the Kenai or Kasilof in July is a uniquely Alaska experience. People use the fishery to fill their freezer and have a good time. Lancaster's proposal has the potential to enhance the experience not diminish it.
A $10-bill seems a small price to pay to address some of the problems associated with this popular fishery. House Bill 93 should be given a chance.
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