Decision minimizes importance of fish as food for Alaskans

Posted: Wednesday, February 27, 2002

It was during his successful campaign for governor in 1994 when Tony Knowles first made popular the statement: "The most important fish is the one on Alaska's dinner table."

A variation of that theme has been used countless times since.

It's a sentiment that Alaskans embrace easily because it embodies a connection with the place where we live and the food that we eat -- no matter what class of fishers we find ourselves: personal-use, subsistence, sport or commercial.

It's a sentiment that recognizes that by choice or by need many Alaskans depend on the state's fish resources for food. It doesn't matter if we can afford fresh or canned fish at the neighborhood grocery store, buying it does not satiate the need we have to catch and prepare the food ourselves.

It's a sentiment that flies in the face of a recent Board of Fisheries ruling that turns the early run of Kenai River kings into a catch-and-release fishery unless the fish are very big or relatively small.

The seven-member panel voted kings less than 40 inches in length or greater than 55 inches can be kept through June 10; from June 11 through June 30 only those greater than 55 inches can be kept.

It's impossible to know all the ramifications of the decision, but we're willing to wager it will further erode Kenai Peninsula residents' connection to the fishery that's in their own back yard. While the move reduces the likelihood of in-season restrictions on the early run, it opens Pandora's box for arguments about the ethics of trophy fishing and catch-and-release fishing.

It's a debate that would benefit from the participation of all Alaskans -- not just those perceived as having a special interest in the outcome. The decision is one of those benchmark issues that has the potential to help define the character of the state.

At its heart, the board's action makes other fish more important than the one on Alaska's dinner table.

Some questions that deserve to be a part of this debate: Do Alaskans want their fish and game resources to be toys for the rich? While a trophy-size king may hold more dollar value mounted on a California angler's wall than one on a resident's dinner plate or one left in the river, do our fish and game resources hold an intrinsic value that cannot be measured in dollars and cents?

When do the mortality rates from catch-and-release fishing become wanton waste?

Are decisions being made to protect the river and its fish or to preserve the livelihoods of those who fish the river?

What does catch-and-release fishing say about the value we place on those fish which nourish us individually around our family's dinner table and collectively through our community's economy?

Some have praised the board's decision as adding predictability to the fishery. But since when have "fishing" and "predictable" become part of the same package?

Fishing the Kenai River is a unique experience. That experience comes with no guarantees of catching a big fish -- or any fish at all. Those who make their livelihoods from fishing gamble on a host of factors lining up in their favor; just as those who fish to put a salmon on their family's dinner table.

Alaskans must be willing to say the fish really are what matters. The board's recent action does little to convince us that conservation of the resource is the goal.

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