Kenai River fishing guides are leading an effort to bring professional standards to the way business is done on the state's most popular sport fishery.
At last week's meeting of the Kenai River Special Management Advisory Board, a program was unveiled that guides hope will eventually lead to strict certification standards for river professionals.
The program, called the Kenai River Guide Academy, is the result of years of hard work and cooperation on the part of Kenai guides, the KRSMA board and faculty members at Kenai Peninsula College.
KPC Director Gary Turner made a presentation on the program to the KRSMA board. Turner said he got on board after guides came to the college asking if there was some way to make a standards-based certification program a reality. Since the college already participates in similar programs in other industries, the idea seemed like a natural fit, Turner said.
"The college in our role works with industry all the time," he said.
Turner explained that Joe Connors, who heads up the KRSMA board's commercial operators committee, came to him with a plan that would call for strict education and training programs to be administered by the college. After several months of work on the mechanics of how this could be done, a committee made up of college faculty and Kenai guides was able to design a curriculum and make a plan to put the new standards in place.
According to Suzanne Fis-ler, Kenai River Center director, the plan is to have the academy set up and ready to begin certifying guides as early as next year.
"The idea is to hopefully have this in place by next spring," Fisler said.
Fisler said the plan is eventually to have the academy become a prerequisite for anyone hoping to receive a permit to guide on the river. During his presentation, Turner outlined how this will happen:
During the first year of the program, all guides new to the Kenai would have to attend the academy's 40-hour program and pass both its written and oral examinations before receiving a guide license.
In 2006, guides with less than five years on the river would have to pass the course. The following year, guides with less than 10 years experience would be required to pass the course in order to get a license. And the following year, all guides regardless of experience would have to be certified.
In addition, Turner said, any guide cited and convicted for any river violation would be required to retake the course before his or her permit could be renewed.
The idea behind having guides retake the course, Turner said, is not to force guides off the river, but to ensure things are done in a professional manner at all times.
"It's not to take guides away from their livelihood," he said.
Turner pointed out that in 2003, just four citations were issued by park rangers or troopers for guides acting improperly on the river.
During a break in the meeting after Turner's presentation, several Kenai guides spoke about the importance of bringing professional standards to the Kenai.
"We just want to work around professional people on the river," guide Mark Glassmaker said.
One of the big problems right now, the guides said, is there is no mechanism in place for new guides to learn about how to conduct themselves on the Kenai. Since the river is a complicated, often crowded place to work, guides would like to see some kind of standard applied across the board to their profession.
"A guy can come up here and guide without ever having seen the Kenai," Kenai River Professional Guides Association President Steve McClure pointed out.
The problem on the river is not that a large number of guides are causing problems. Most of them, the guides agreed, already adhere to high professional standards. However, anytime someone from the general public sees a guide doing something improperly on the river, Glassmaker said, it reflects on the entire guiding community.
"One rotten apple can make the whole thing smell," he said.
The guides admitted that some longtime guides might be resistant to the academy, which would require even highly experienced guides to take the test. However, Glassmaker pointed out that even the most experienced guides can learn something from the course, which will cover such topics as river history, traditional uses, ethical standards and safety.
"It's not a course to teach people how to fish, it's to teach how to be a better fishing guide," he said.
Guide Joe Hanes said the good thing for the older guides is the program is phased in over a number of years.
"The bottom line is it's graduated," Hanes said. "It takes care of the lower guys first."
The guides said they will all despite having decades of experience on the river be more than willing to attend the academy.
"It's just a good thing," Hanes said.
Following the meeting, Joe Connors said he's thrilled that the program is finally getting close to reality.
"I'm excited about it," he said.
Once the program is in place, he said he believes it will usher in a new era of cooperation and professionalism on the river. That, he said, will lead to a more courteous, friendly and ultimately better fishing experience for both guided and nonguided anglers.
"The bottom line is, this is good," he said. "It's good for residents, it's good for guides, it's good for the community, and it's good for the future."
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