Taking care of Kenai River business a team effort

Posted: Saturday, March 02, 2002

Yes, the business of sport fishing on the Kenai River has a ton of problems. And, yes, when one sits back and looks at all the issues surrounding the business of sport fishing on the river, they can be overwhelming.

But the Kenai River also has a ton of people dedicated to exploring, researching, arguing and sometimes solving those problems.

It is faith in those people that has a Kenai River guide, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist and an Alaska State Parks employee feeling optimistic as they look at the future of the business of sport fishing on the Kenai River 20 years down the road and beyond.

Here are their thoughts, concerns and reasons for optimism:

Suzanne Fisler

Suzanne Fisler has worked for Alaska State Parks, primarily on the Kenai River, since 1979. She currently does work for State Parks at the Kenai River Center, a multijurisdictional office that houses most of the agencies involved in permitting on the Kenai River.

Fisler said she definitely sees problems on the horizon for the Kenai River. But she said the reason she's in the park business is because she believes those problems can be overcome.

"I'm an optimistic person. There's always downsides. Everybody has their own slant or their own worry," Fisler said. "I lived here at a time when if you didn't get your Christmas cards at Halloween at the store, you weren't going to get them out on time.

"Now you have kids standing out waiting for the bus in tennis shoes in 40-degree weather in Nikiski. It's obvious things have changed. It's very easy to trade off for modern comforts without thinking of the cost."

As the comforts and population of the modern age close in around the river, Fisler is concerned about what effect the modern age will have on the river.

"It will have an effect. It's an effect history shows us is not necessarily beneficial," Fisler said.

Fisler is specifically referring to more and more homes and subdivisions popping up around the Kenai River. With that come more paving, more septic waste and more automobile traffic. All of this has the potential to harm the river.

While fish allocation issues always draw a boisterous crowd, Fisler said this is not always the case with development issues.

"We don't have a vocal outcry about a lot of development happening," Fisler said. "Those things happen in a city council meeting or a planning commission.

"Unless they're extremely contentious, the public never notices. It's insidious and incremental."

According to Fisler, there's also a lot of subdivisions bursting up along tributaries to the Kenai River. Fisler also said when wetlands are filled or water is diverted, it also has an effect on the river.

"We're losing our canopy to blacktop," Fisler said. "What made the river great is what's here, and we're rapidly changing it."

So where's the reason for optimism?

For one, Fisler said the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and the Chugach National Forest provide a big bubble of protection around the headwaters of the Kenai River. The remainder of the water column -- Kenai Lake, Skilak Lake and the Kenai River -- is a state park.

"Fortunately, agriculture and industry are not big in this part of Alaska," Fisler said. "They may never be. So we're not seeing mining, timber and agriculture leases.

"For the most part, those lands are in their natural state. We're lucky to have this big backbone of regulated, public lands. By no means am I an avid supporter of recreation over all uses, but it's stopped the peninsula from having a Lake Hood at places like Kenai Lake and Skilak Lake."

Fisler said just because the Kenai River is surrounded by regulated, protected lands does not mean it's off the hook.

"A lot of people say we don't have agriculture, dams, forestry and mining here, so we're safe," Fisler said. "What's happened to a lot of rivers in the Lower 48 can still happen here, it'll just happen in 50 years instead of 20."

But, that also means the peninsula has more time to keep it from happening.

"I think as time goes on in Alaska, we'll suddenly come to a point where we'll realize everything we've had all these years is not an infinite, but a finite, resource," Fisler said. "How we manage and use it will determine whether we have it into perpetuity."

Steve McClure

Steve McClure is the vice president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association. The association has more than 200 members.

McClure has been in Alaska for 30 years, but he just started guiding six years ago with his wife at McClure Guide Service.

Like Fisler, McClure has a lot of positive and negative thoughts when he sizes up where the business of sport fishing on the Kenai Peninsula will be in 20 years.

One of the positives he sees is the rapid growth of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association to include more than half of the guides on the river. Membership has doubled in the past two years.

"Things are coming together that have never happened before," McClure said.

Last year, the Kenai guides took school kids fishing, free of charge, for one day. The guides also are in on a salmon celebration every year at Johnson Lake for school kids. The celebration teaches kids about things like life jackets, tying flies and casting with a fly rod.

The guides also have come together to solve problems on the river. When State Parks heard a lot of complaints about guides stopping on shore near the Kenai Keys to let their clients go to the bathroom in the woods, the guides installed portable bathrooms in the area for their clients.

McClure also said the guides are trying to start a guide mentorship program. The idea started when the Alaska Board of Fisheries challenged the guides three years ago to curb the complaints regarding overcrowding, abusive behavior and combativeness between boats on the Kenai River.

The guides decided one reason for this problem is the high turnover rate among guides on the river. Fifty percent of the guides on the Kenai River have been there five years or less. Further, 60 guides are lost each year, while 60 new guides come in to replace them.

"We'd like to make it so you can't come in off the street and be a Kenai River guide tomorrow," McClure said. "The mentorship program will make guides more committed to the river and the resource. If somebody has to go through a program, they'll have more of a stake than somebody who comes up from Oregon, guides for a summer, and goes home.

"What does this person have to lose?"

Despite this progress, McClure sees some clouds on the horizon that could become awfully dark in subsistence fishing and habitat erosion.

He also doesn't see a lot of room for growth in the business of sport fishing on the Kenai River.

"There's been the same number of guides, or it's gone down a little, over the last 10 years," McClure said. "That tells you right there it's probably at its max."

As a guide, many think it would be safe to assume McClure would be happy to see commercial fishing in Cook Inlet die, but that's not the case.

"Commercial fishing on the Kenai Peninsula has been here awhile, and it's something we need," McClure said. "The economy can't survive on just sport fish. We need that money from a different area."

When asked how commercial fishing could affect the business of sport fishing on the Kenai Peninsula in the future, McClure said there were too many variables to answer that question.

Overall, he remains confident in the ability of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to manage the fishery far into the future.

"I think 20 years from now, I'll still be here," McClure said. "I just kind of hope as we learn stuff, we'll do what we can to protect the river.

"There's just so many groups around here formed to look after the river. I'm confident in the future because there's so many people concerned about it."

Jay Carlon

Jay Carlon has been with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna since 1979. He is a fisheries biologist with the Sport Fish Division.

Carlon said that, obviously, there are a ton of issues when it comes to sport fishing and the Kenai River. There also are a number of things it's impossible to be entirely sure about, such as the future of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet or the Kenai River's fish habitat.

But without getting into those issues, he said he has an overriding reason for optimism.

"Sure, I'm optimistic," Carlon said. "The reason I say that is (Fish and Game has) a program in place to ensure sustainability, even when you're talking about 20 years down the road.

"We have the authority to take action if we see problems with any of the returns. We may not have all the information at all times, but we can take action if there is reason to be concerned."

Of course, Fish and Game's program is not set in stone. And Carlon said that's exactly what makes the program solid.

"The thing I want to stress is the department takes an adaptive approach to fisheries management," Carlon said. "It's not one plan that's going to keep us on track. It will take a number of plans that are always changing and adapting to social and biological concerns.

"The plans are always changing, but they're changing with the basic idea that the resource should go on forever."

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