When the Alaska Board of Fisheries meets in Anchorage later this month to consider regulation changes, one of the hottest issues will be personal-use dipnet fishing in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for sockeye salmon.
The issue isn't about conservation, but who gets the fish: the families who fish for food, or the people who fish for money. The debate will be mainly on political grounds, and it's almost certain to turn ugly.
Popular from the get-go, dipnet fishing at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers continues to increase unchecked. For 2007-2009, the 3-year average harvest for the Kenai was 288,457 fish; for the Kasilof, 56,793 fish.
On the other side, the 2010 total commercial Cook Inlet harvest for the 2010 season was about 2,900,000 sockeyes. The fish averaged 6.1 pounds, and fishermen were paid about $1.75 per pound. You can see why they like to catch as many as possible. They see dipnet fishing as an increasing threat to their incomes.
What this pending fish fight will come down to is who has the most clout, dipnetters or commercial interests. From past observations, my money is on the guys who do it for money.
Of the 28 proposals addressing Upper Cook Inlet personal-use fishing, 22 are from obvious commercial interests -- 11 from the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), alone. Three seemingly are from rod-and-reel anglers who blame dipnetters for reducing the number of sockeyes available in the Kenai. I was unable to verify if these were from commercial fishermen who also fish for sport and sometimes wear both hats. Only two proposals came from dipnetters, and neither addressed the most contentious fisheries, the Kenai and Kasilof. One, about king salmon retention, came from the local Fish and Game advisory committee.
A sampling of UCIDA proposals:
Prop. 174 would allow non-residents to participate in the Upper Cook Inlet personal-use fisheries. At present, only residents can participate. This eyebrow-raising change would bring thousands of additional dipnetters to the existing crowded fishery. Suspicious minds wonder.
Prop. 184 would establish a Guideline Harvest Limit (GHL) for the Kenai River and Kasilof River sport and personal-use fisheries of 10 percent of the respective sonar counts. For the 2010 season, the final sonar count was 970,762. A GHL of 10 percent would mean the total sport and personal-use harvest couldn't exceed about 97,000 fish.
Prop. 187 would reduce the household limit in Cook Inlet personal-use fisheries from 25 to 10 fish, and would eliminate the additional 10 fish per household member.
Prop. 191 would reduce the allowable mesh size in Cook Inlet dipnet fisheries or prohibit release of fish.
Proposals 193 and 194 would prohibit dipnetting from boats in the Kenai River personal-use fishery. The issue here, according to UCIDA, is that the boats disturb beluga whales, causing them to abandon critical habitats in the lower Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
To date, dipnetters haven't exhibited much clout at fish-board meetings. If they don't show up this time, they're almost certain to lose.
Les Palmer lives in Sterling.
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