Righting the wrongs

Posted: Friday, April 19, 2002

Editor's note: This is the third part in a three-part series about what recent events portend for the future of anglers, fishing guides and others for whom the Kenai River is key to their welfare.

When it comes to making fishing regulations, Alaska has the most open process of all states.

The public can be involved at every stage, from the local fish and game advisory committee, to the Board of Fisheries. It's a system deserving of our support. We should cherish and take pride in it.

But wait. If this process is so wonderful, how did we end up with a regulation that effectively made catch-and-release salmon fishing more important than catch-and-eat?

For no biological reason, the fish board in February voted to replace a traditional salmon harvest with a catch-and-release fishery. For now, this regulation applies only to the early-run Kenai River king salmon, but it signals profound changes ahead.

More than a simple count of "yeas" and "nays," that unprecedented vote represented a paradigm shift.

With that vote, the Board of Fisheries gave away part of our Alaskan birthright, our right to catch and eat salmon, so fishing guides would have a more stable, predictable fishery to sell.

With that vote, the board ignored the Alaska Constitution, which mandates the management of fish for a sustained yield.

With that vote, the board turned a deaf ear to the scientists who safeguard our fisheries, and instead paid heed to a few self-interested fishing guides and the overzealous representatives of a sport-fishing organization.

With that vote, the board served notice that the same thing could happen anywhere. Too much pressure on king salmon fisheries in the Susitna drainage? Slow down the harvest with catch-and-release. Are emergency closures making it difficult for Nushagak River guides and lodge owners to book trips? Make the king run catch-and-release. Is intensive management costing too much? Go to catch-and-release.

Where was the Department of Fish and Game while all this was going on? On allocative proposals, agency staff claim neutrality. Mainly, they were mute on this issue, claiming it was allocative, not biological, knowing it was a hot potato. But just how neutral were they?

As I mentioned in last week's column, Sport Fish Director Kelly Hepler stated that his staff went to the February board meeting asking that "consideration be given for providing a stable and predictable fishery for current user groups" of early-run Kenai River king salmon. On an issue that was so obviously allocative, what was he doing asking for something that has more to do with the marketability of a product than with the biology of the early-run kings?

Hepler wasn't the only one interested in a stable and predictable early run. After the board vote, KRSA executive director Brett Huber expressed his disappointment that the board hadn't made the entire run catch-and-release.

"It would have been predictable, simple and stable," Huber told the Anchorage Daily News.

Biologists linked with this exercise in social engineering have lost some credibility, and credibility is of utmost importance to a scientist. This didn't happen overnight.

As recently as a decade ago, Fish and Game staff instinctively gave the Kenai River Sportfishing Association a wide berth. In the organization's early years, founder Bob Penney was a junkyard dog when it came to taking on the commercial-fishing industry. In one way, this was healthy. At least you knew where Penney was coming from and where he wanted to go. And woe be to the biologist who went there.

Nowadays, KRSA's aims are less obvious. In the early 1990s, it became a kinder, gentler organization.

"Think habitat -- if we wait it'll be too late," became its slogan. It adopted the mission of "preserving the greatest sportfishing river in the world, the Kenai River, through protecting fish habitat, providing education, and promoting responsible sportfishing."

The newly benevolent organization began granting large sums of cash to provide habitat-friendly angler access along the Kenai. It handed out awards to property owners for protecting their river banks in a habitat-friendly manner.

KRSA is largely funded by its fishing tournament, the Kenai River Classic, held in early July for the past eight years. In last year's event, Honorary Classic Co-Hosts Senator Ted Stevens and Governor Tony Knowles played host to 180 participants, according to the KRSA Web site. This group included four U.S. senators, four Bush Cabinet members, dozens of executives from major corporations, and celebrity guests.

Also attending were Senate President Rick Halford, House Speaker Brian Porter, Fish and Game Commissioner Frank Rue and Board of Fisheries members Dan Coffey and Ed Dersham. This was not your everyday fishing trip.

While giving away $2 million dollars for river-related projects, KRSA ingratiated itself to every city, borough, state and federal agency with ties to the Kenai River, as well as to the Kenai Peninsula business community.

Many is the state law-maker and bureaucrat who spent an enjoyable July morning fishing for king salmon on the Kenai River. This is KRSA's "On the River" program. It's purpose, according to the group's Web site, is to make policy makers "familiar with the issues of importance to the river and the efforts being accomplished on its behalf."

How can a policy maker refuse a request from KRSA when he or she has been on a free fishing trip with such nice, well-meaning folks?

How can the Department of Fish and Game be other than accommodating when KRSA gives Fish and Game several thousand dollars for a study?

Not that KRSA hasn't done a lot of good work. But its largess with politicians and bureaucrats threatens not only its own credibility, but that of those whose favor the group seeks.

How can the state give unbiased consideration to the issue of boat wakes on the Kenai when the prime sponsor of the Kenai River Classic is Yamaha Marine?

It may seem as if I'm giving KRSA too much credit, but I don't think so.

It's safe to say that this is the most powerful and influential sport-fishing organization in the world. At the February fish board meeting, that power and influence was demonstrated.

Not that KRSA deserves all the credit. Other reasons for what went wrong:

n Angler apathy is at an all-time high.

n Commercial fishermen, driven to desperation by low salmon prices, vented their anger and frustration by writing dozens of silly proposals, all of which had to be considered at every level of the process. The sheer number of proposals swamped the advisory committees. Important issues went unconsidered.

n The Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee for years has been viewed by other user-groups as stacked in favor of commercial-fishing interests. Sport-fishing interests chose to ignore this committee, thus skipping part of the public process.

n Going into the February board meeting, some issues remained hidden that should have been previously aired in public. As a result, the public and at least some of the staff and board were blind-sided by what happened.

In retrospect, many of us wish we could go back and reconsider the proposal dealing with early-run kings. Hopefully, the board will give us that chance to reconsider it before 2005, when the board next addresses Cook Inlet fin-fish proposals.

If you're wondering what you can do right now, there's plenty.

As Alaskans, we need to reaffirm the belief that whenever a harvestable surplus of salmon exists, it should be harvested, not set aside to play with. We need to join organizations that support this belief, and work to change those that don't.

The fee for a resident sport fishing license ($15) hasn't increased in years. If we want to harvest Kenai River salmon, which requires intensive, expensive management, we may have to pay more for that management than we did 10 years ago. We should mention this to our legislators.

We need to rethink the word "sport," as it applies to fishing. Somewhere along the line, many anglers have bought into the idea that catching-and-releasing salmon is a "sporting" thing to do. Maybe we ought to think about whether salmon have enough problems, without being caught and release just for "sport."

Along the way, we'll hear that a "trophy" salmon has more value on a tourist's hook or wall than on an Alaska's dinner plate. If we allow economics to form our opinions on this matter, we will have sold off the rest of our birthright.

Les Palmer is a free-lance writer who lives in Sterling.

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