Since the recent Board of Fisheries meeting, some attention has been directed toward the board's changes to the management of early-run king salmon on the Kenai River. While opinions have been prevalent, the facts have not.
Even a local columnist pining for "the good old days" of fishery allocation battles that divided the community and a local wizard Web master proclaiming himself as "THE original protector of the Kenai" have provided their account of the meeting, including the motives of those in attendance. An amazing feat, considering they chose not to participate in the process. One never set foot in the meeting; the other attended only a couple of days. Neither of them gave testimony, provided written comments or volunteered to serve on a committee. Maybe if they, like the other members of the public and advocates from the various user groups, had put their energy into the process they would have had less remaining for their unfounded attacks.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association participated in the board meeting. Our executive director, board chair, fishery and habitat protection committee chairs, other directors and members represented KRSA. We attended the entire meeting. Our group testified, wrote comments, volunteered for and served on committees, met with department staff and talked about the issues with everyone involved.
KRSA took a position on every issue before the board. We based our positions first on conservation of the resource, and then on equity in access, allocation and opportunity for sport and personal users. Our position in support of catch-and-release management of early-run Kenai kings was no exception.
To understand the board's decision on this issue, it's important to know where the proposal began. The proposal originated with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game biologist tasked with managing king salmon on the Kenai River. His growing concern for the diminishing numbers of the largest (five-ocean, 7-year-old) kings prompted discussions within the department a year ago. He subsequently carried his concern to the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee. He gave his report and floated the idea of a non-retention slot requiring anglers to release kings in the size range of most 7-year-old fish. The advisory committee submitted the formal proposal to the Board of Fisheries last April. It became Proposal No. 297 and was scheduled for action at the Upper Cook Inlet board meeting along with over 300 others.
During staff reports on the opening day of the meeting, Fish and Game biologists reported on the decline of large Kenai kings. They further described the early-run Kenai fishery as one that required them to take in-season management action by emergency order in nine of the last 12 years. Hardly a fishery that could be described as "stable and predictable" in accordance with the Division of Sportfish mission statement. The fishery managers identified two distinct problems. First, a decline in the number of big fish, and second, a lack of stability in one of the most important sport fisheries in the state.
Following staff reports, the board took public testimony. Along with other central issues, the early-run Kenai king issue generated comments from the public and advisory committees, as well as questions and comments from the board members.
The management options offered ranged widely. Some suggestions were meant to address one of the concerns, and some the other. From closing the river altogether, to limiting the fishery to three days per week, to reducing the annual bag limit to one Kenai king, to various versions of non-retention slots, to trophy catch-and-release management, everything was on the table.
Following a great deal of discussion, KRSA took our position in support of catch-and-release management with the use of bait and the ability to retain a potential new world record (fish over 55 inches). We did so because we believed it to be the most biologically sound option available -- and we still do. If you want more big fish, the first thing you need is more fish.
In addition to putting more fish on the spawning beds, this approach would maintain the maximum possible angling opportunity. Stability, predictability and success would be enhanced for the angler. KRSA members -- guided, unguided, local, resident and visiting anglers alike --would share in those benefits. The resource could rebuild, and the fishery would continue. Lost, temporarily at least, would be the ability to retain a Kenai king prior to July 1.
Recognizing the benefit to the resource, other groups and individuals favored catch and release as well. The Kenai River Professional Guides Association lent their support in spite of the probable detrimental economic effect to their businesses. Support for catch and release also came from the department and the board. The discussion during deliberations was not "if" the first run would become a catch-and-release fishery, it was "when." We saw the value of taking this action now, for the fish and for the fishery.
The board, however, chose a more incremental approach -- a temporary fix at best. This issue will be back before the board in 2005 and deserves thorough discussion between now and then. KRSA is looking forward to participating, and we are hopeful others will put away their "rocks and rhetoric" and join in a constructive dialogue.
As for the question about the real savior of the Kenai River -- "Web wizard," "columnist" or "lone-ranger river guide"? As far as we are concerned, the more the merrier. We at KRSA are proud of our work on habitat protection, fishery conservation and public education along the river. We are grateful for our partners in these efforts and welcome all the help we can get.
Brett W. Huber is the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. For those who want to discuss this or other KRSA issues, he can be reached by phone at 262-8588 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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