Three recent surveys have all echoed the same paramount theme too many guides. It's a fact, not a myth, that there are too many guides operating on the lower Kenai River. The majority of local guides have displaced many local and resident fishermen, leaving them frustrated and ready to take action to reclaim the type of fishing pleasure they used to enjoy.
I must admit to being one of these people. I mainly fish the middle river now. While I realize it may not be as productive, I enjoy the day and I leave the river with a feeling of fulfillment rather than frustration.
All of us who have lived in the area for awhile realize the functionality and professionalism of our local guide community and the importance to commerce they provide; however, there has to be a balance that allows local fishermen and guided clients a fishery that both can enjoy.
This is not the present situation, and the blame can be squarely placed on the increases in guided numbers and activity. Many longtime guides have been party to various attempts to regulate these numbers, but they get the rug pulled out from under them by greedy fellow guides who threaten lawsuits to keep the status quo.
The last attempt was a moratorium on issuing new permits for the next two years, but that failed when some guides threatened litigation and the state sponsors caved.
Prior to that was an attempt, in 1992, to establish a guide limit and issue permits based on points, much like limited entry. Once again, the process failed because it couldn't pass legal muster. In 1992, when it was determined that there were too many guides their numbers were 267. It is now 348, so you can see what the results are of this failed process.
Where do we go from here?
I believe, for credibility, it is up to the two local sportfishing and guide organizations, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association , to take the lead. They should work with the local fish and game advisory committee, the Kenai River Special Management Area board and the state Division of Parks to establish what guide numbers are appropriate and acceptable to all concerned.
After consensus on a baseline guide number, then all concerned parties could join in petitioning the state to put into place a methodology to permitting that recognizes residency and longevity in the fishery as main components to establish successful permittees.
If nothing is done, it is likely that the state Division of Parks will be mandated by social and safety concerns to reduce guide numbers by a lottery system that would be less than fair to our friends and neighbors who are guides.
In concert with guide reductions, the Division of Parks also must recognize the growing boat rental business as a commercial enterprise and limit those numbers as well. Anything else will only cause a balloon effect from one commercial entity to another without satisfactory results.
I would estimate the time line for action, in this regard, is one year to 18 months. I base this on the fact that 18 months from now we will be submitting proposals to the Alaska Board of Fisheries for the Kenai River fishery. In a recent call for recommendations from the public on the early-run Kenai and Kasilof king salmon fishery, the board received 30 recommendations. Twenty-two of these called for some form of guide reductions or restrictions such as cutting the guide fleet in half or reducing guide fishing days or hours.
The handwriting is on the wall, something needs to change. I don't believe the guides can stand many restrictions before their profitability and importance to the community are affected.
I do believe, however, if we can all work together, without litigation, to put together an acceptable reduction in guides and guide activity we could avoid restrictions and the remaining guides could market and provide a higher quality experience to their clients.
All of us would like to see the times of harmony and quality brought back to a day on the water on the greatest fishing river in the world. Its current, race for dollars, Cook Inlet-type wave action and crowdedness has to become a point in history we look back on as a great mistake that was thwarted by the most basic thing that unites all anglers, and that is the true nature of an enjoyable and memorable experience on the water with the chance of catching food for the table or the "big one."
Dwight Kramer is a sport fisher who has lived in Alaska for 35 years and on the Kenai Peninsula since 1983. He serves on the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee.
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