Conservation concerns, not conspiracy, prompts new fishing regulations

Back to basics on early-run kings

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

New fishing regulations for early run king salmon in the Kenai River were prompted by conservation concerns, not by some conspiracy to deprive local anglers of the opportunity to catch, cook and eat early run king salmon. Recent theories accuse Joe Connors of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association and Brett Huber of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association of just such a conspiracy at the recent meeting of the Alaska Board of Fish meeting in Anchorage. Let's look at the facts.

Test net data gathered by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game from the lower Kenai River indicate a decline in five-ocean, 7- year-old fish during the early run. Older fish comprise the bulk of king salmon that are regarded as "trophy" sized. This observed decline was mirrored by informal observations by anglers and has been a subject of concern by the public for several years.

Scientific studies indicate that older king salmon produce mostly older king salmon. As a result, regulations that permitted retention of king salmon 55 inches or greater in length, even when the fishery was otherwise restricted, were called into question by the Department of Fish and Game. The notion that older fish produce mostly older fish introduced a genetic component into management of the fishery that current management strategies might not adequately address.

Add to this, the natural tendency of anglers to select larger (read older) fish for retention when the fishery is not restricted and there existed the potential for genetically altering the stock composition of early run king salmon.

These concerns were expressed by staff of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game at a meeting of the Kenai-Soldotna Advisory Committee in the spring of 2001. As a result, the advisory committee unanimously elected to sponsor a proposal to the Alaska Board of Fisheries that asked the board to develop regulations that minimize the harvest of 7-year-old, five-ocean king salmon in the early run fishery (Proposal No. 297). This proposal supplied the mechanism for the Board of Fisheries to formally engage in a review of existing management strategies and the need (if any) to change how the fishery is managed.

In a recent newspaper article, the Department of Fish and Game states that the move toward catch-and-release fishing on the Kenai River during the early run was not motivated by biological concerns, but by a desire to "provide a more stable and predictable fishery." This statement is taken out of context and is misleading.

Concerns regarding declining numbers of older fish are embodied in the department's responses to proposals and in the oral report given to the board on this issue. The notion of stable and predictable fishing opportunities comes from recent efforts on the part of Sport Fish Division to develop a strategic plan for sport fisheries throughout the state.

In the case of early run king salmon, the move by the board toward catch-and-release style fishing was only one of several regulatory alternatives available to provide additional protection for older fish. The option of moving toward catch-and-release style fishing was offered to the board by the department as one of several options without the intention of forcing any particular outcome on users.

In fact, the concept of providing for stability in sport fisheries is one of the guiding principles that the board must consider when adopting sport fish regulations. The notion of providing a stable and predictable fishery is an immanently logical approach to fisheries management. Who amongst the public preferred the unpredictable nature of the early run fishery, given that it has been restricted mid-season by emergency order during six of the past 13 years?

How do the new regulations provide additional protection for Kenai River early run stocks and how do they mitigate effects of selectively harvesting older fish?

New regulations permit retention of king salmon that are less than 40 inches in length and those that are 55 inches or greater in length through June 10. This is effectively a slot limit that provides additional protection for the vast majority of older fish during this time period. This slot limit allows for the taking of the very large trophy-sized king salmon of which no more than 10 are harvested annually. Alternatively, some argue that these changes selectively focus sport harvest on king salmon less than 40 inches in length (read younger). While this is true, the prohibition on the use of bait through June 10 will effectively decrease potential harvest rates on these size fish during this time period.

After June 10 and through June 30 (the regulatory end of the early run), new regulations provide an even greater level of protection. During this time period, only those king salmon that are 55 inches or greater in length may be retained. With the exception of very large trophies and those fish that die as a result of catch and release (approximately 6 percent), this new regulation effectively protects the run across all age classes. These regulations are intended to allow an opportunity for the recovery of older age class fish while still providing reasonable levels of harvest opportunity to all anglers.

The notion that these new fishing regulations are a result of some conspiracy on the part of Brett Huber and Joe Connors at the recent Board of Fish meeting is hogwash. Each should be commended for taking positions of support for regulations intended to address important conservation concerns. Preserving the genetic composition and integrity of the early run of king salmon into the Kenai River at the expense of some loss of opportunity to harvest, cook and eat these fish seems like a small sacrifice for anglers that have robust harvest opportunities on the Kenai River during July.

Well-intentioned legislators have chosen to oppose confirmation of Brett Huber to the Alaska Board of Fish, apparently due to his support for restrictions to the early run fishery. In essence, they are buying into the spate of conspiracy theories that embodies an increasing resentment on the part of local anglers toward a growing number of guides on the Kenai River. Brett Huber's confirmation to the Alaska Board of Fisheries has become a beacon of this resentment.

Legislators need to re-examine what's really happening here. The real issue is overcrowding on the Kenai River and the difficulty that local anglers have when trying to compete for a limited number of fish with so many professional guides. This is an important issue that the Alaska Board of Fisheries is not empowered to regulate. Legislative intervention is necessary.

Perhaps this debate will motivate local legislators to draft legislation that places fair limitations on the overall number of guides permitted to operate on the Kenai River.

Mike Bethe was the area management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, Division of Sport Fish in Soldotna from 1999 to 2001. In that capacity, he was responsible for managing all sport and personal use fisheries in the Northern Kenai Peninsula Management Area, including the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

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