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Sporting interests: Kenai Peninsula sport fishermen have varied ideas for fish board

Posted: Friday, February 18, 2011

Editor's note: This is the second part in a three-part series leading up to the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting on Upper Cook Inlet finfish issues Sunday. The purpose of the series is to examine the three distinct user groups, the people that constitute them, and what issues matter to them the most.

Photo By M. Scott Moon
Photo By M. Scott Moon
Mike Crawford spends his summers fishing the rivers, lakes and salt water of the Kenai Peninsula.

Sporting interests: Kenai Peninsula sport fishermen have varied ideas for fish boardWith the beginning of the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting a mere two days away, Mike Crawford is ready to give his two cents when it comes to fishing policy in Upper Cook Inlet.

And he's encouraging others to do the same.

"This is put up or shut up time," said the 46-year-old Soldotna resident and avid angler. "If you feel strongly about these issues you should give your written comments or public testimony."

Public testimony for the triennial Board of Fisheries meeting on local issues starts Sunday and is scheduled through Tuesday morning.

"You can't complain about who got voted into office if you didn't vote," he said, as an analogy to the fishing regulations.

As the head of the Kenai Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, Crawford spent countless hours reviewing the hundred of proposals submitted by the state, agencies, advisory committees and individuals for the board's consideration.

"Everywhere else I've lived other people make decisions about fishing and hunting," he said, but "anybody can go to Board of Fish and give them their thoughts."

Crawford lived in East Texas and Seattle and began visiting Alaska to fish in 1994. He moved here in 2001.

"I just decided I was tired of visiting and I wanted to live here and so here I am," he said. "Every waking moment I'm thinking about fishing."

Although Crawford primarily fishes for sport, he recognizes the importance of all the fisheries to the local economy, as well as the importance to having enough fish for all users.

"Everybody wants their piece of the pie and the pie is getting smaller and smaller pieces," he said. "We all deserve our piece of the pie."

He said that at this year's Board of Fisheries meeting he's not expecting anything extreme to happen in terms of regulations for all user groups.

"They're not going to do anything drastic on either side," he said. "The biggest concern is to keep the right amount of fish in the river."

But that right amount fish might be changing with the Department of Fish and Game's transition to new sonar technology.

"Our old sonar just hasn't served us for in-season assessment of king salmon," said Jason Pawluk, assistant area management biologist for the Department of Fish and Game division of sport fish. "We are transitioning to the DIDSON sonar. In all our research we've done so far it estimates in-season king salmon abundance correctly."

Because of this transition, Pawluk said the department is opposed to most proposals that liberalize -- and restrict -- the king salmon sport fishery.

"We just want to keep the fishery status quo right now," he said.

That means the state and the Kenai Area Fisherman's Coalition (KAFC) have at least one viewpoint in common.

Dwight Kramer, chairman of the coalition, said his organization is against all proposals that seek to liberalize the king fishery, like those that allow bait at the beginning of the season and change the regulations for keeping younger and smaller fish also know as jack salmon.

"In general, we feel that the Kenai has become a high density, low quality fishery. Our returns are lower and our older and larger age class fish are rapidly disappearing. This coupled with the difficulties ADF&G is having with their sonar counts makes it questionable exactly how many fish are actually making it to the spawning grounds. They now admit that they may have been counting as much as twice as many kings than actually existed due to sockeye confusion," Kramer said via e-mail. "With these types of uncertainties we are going to be pursuing a very conservative approach to this board meeting. If we have any chance of turning this thing around we have to reduce exploitation rates and quit the practice of selectively harvesting our biggest and best breeding stocks for photo ops and bragging rights."

In regard to specific proposals, the KAFC is supporting one to extend the slot limit through the end of July to protect larger age class kings as well as amending the slot limit to 40 to 52 inches (it's currently set at 46 to 55 inches).

KAFC is also supporting its own proposals to add an additional drift day on the Kenai as well as modifying guide hours to 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. from the current 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. times.

"We think it's really important this river slows down some," Kramer said.

He said he expects the sonar technology to be a hot button issue at the meeting this year.

"That sonar counting thing is going to be a huge part of this whole meeting, everybody is upset with that," he said.

Ricky Gease of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) seemed to have the same concerns about getting the maximum amount of kings in the Kenai.

"Statewide there have been issues with chinook runs, not making escapements or barely meeting minimum escapement," he said. "I think there's going to be discussion about how can we put more kings in the Kenai River."

But unlike KAFC, KRSA is in support of increased and earlier fishing of chinook salmon.

"We'd like to see more opportunity provided, better opportunity provided for the angling public for the early run fishery for May and jack king salmon," he said.

The KRSA also has submitted a proposal to the Board of Fisheries to re-examine the Kenai early run king salmon management plan, which multiple user groups have supported.

"All aspects of that plan should be opened up and looked at," Gease said. "We need to have a healthy discussion."

Gease is in the camp that over escapement does not harm a stock, unlike other fishermen in the area.

"We now have information and data that expanding the amount of fish in the river has been productive and we're getting an increased result," he said.

Gease was also in support of liberalizing the area's coho salmon sport fishery and returning it to the historical bag limit of three fish from its current two.

Pawluk said the department is opposing any liberalizations to the coho sport fishery.

We're "opposed because we feel right now exploitation of cohos is at a sustainable level and any increases might push exploitation to a high level," he said.

On the guide side of things, Dave Goggia of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association said he's in favor of looking at the early run king management plan but does not support any more restrictions on guides.

"Kenai River guides are the most restricted user group already," he said. "Whether it's days or time, there's always a few (proposals) in there that want to cut our hours or cut our days."

He said it's critical to have windows in place to move fish into the river during the commercial harvest and he's going to support anything that allows that.

"If we have windows, that will help allow fish move into the river," he said.

And Goggia resented any indications that pit guides against other anglers.

"It's not about guides versus non-guides, it's about sport fishermen," he said. "Guides help sport fishermen access the fishery."

Accessing the fishery is something Crawford really believes in as well.

"Rules are so confusing as it is," he said.

He said he wants to ensure that the rules in place are the "easiest to access the resource."

And what is decided at the Board of Fisheries meeting over the next two weeks will become policy.

"These proposals will be effective this summer," Crawford said.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.



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