Hunters, anglers and commercial fishers alike fret over Thursday's decision granting the federal rural subsistence priority to all of the Kenai Peninsula's roughly 50,000 citizens.
The implications are far from clear, though, since the Federal Subsistence Board has not yet created many subsistence opportunities for the newly declared rural residents.
"We're going to have to wait and see what the feds do with it," said Ron Holloway, manager of the Sports Den in Soldotna.
Only rural residents qualify for the federal subsistence priority, and until last week, Ninilchik, Cooper Landing, Hope, Seldovia, Nanwalek and Port Graham were the only peninsula communities classified as rural. In response to a petition from the Kenaitze Indian Tribe, though, the federal board classified even the peninsula's major population centers as rural.
Now, all peninsula residents qualify for the federal subsistence priority, but that means little by itself. Before the newly declared rural residents can partake in federal subsistence, the board must determine that particular communities have traditionally harvested particular stocks, and create the appropriate hunts or fisheries.
"We'll be waiting to hear from folks what they think their subsistence priorities should be," said Federal Subsistence Board member Jim Caplan, deputy regional forester for the U.S. Forest Service. "Our interest is in preserving the subsistence lifestyle for all the people of the Kenai Peninsula. This rural priority is not based on race."
The Kenaitzes already operate a state-authorized educational salmon gillnet just outside the mouth of the Kenai River. However, Rosalie Tepp, tribal chair, said it is too early to say what federal subsistence proposals the Kenaitzes might make.
"We've always been interested in fishing and hunting, moose and salmon," she said. "But I can't say we're going to do this or we're going to do that, because we haven't decided yet."
Phil Squires, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said the peninsulawide rural designation is unsettling.
"But I don't think it's necessarily a disaster for commercial fishermen," he said. "It depends on what kind of fish and what kind of access (the Kenaitzes) ask for. In the past, they have always wanted spring king salmon and fall cohos."
The state essentially limits commercial fishers to July sockeyes, he said, so subsistence fishing for early kings or fall cohos would effect mainly sport fishers.
"It's catastrophic," said Kenai River fishing guide Joe Connors, speaking for himself and not as president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association.
Sport fishers take roughly 6,500 early-run king salmon per year from the Kenai River.
"If 10,000 people wanted to participate in subsistence, that would easily account for every harvestable fish," he said.
A subsistence fishery on late-run kings also could threaten commercial fishers, he said.
"If someone thinks they're safe, take a reality check," he said.
Tepp said people should not panic.
"We're not going to go crazy," she said. "This area was rural once before. They didn't panic then, and they shouldn't panic now. I don't think we're going to decimate the Kenai River. That's far off. We never have, and we never will."
The rural determination will bring few changes this year, since the board will not consider new subsistence fishing proposals until December or new subsistence hunting proposals until May 2001.
"I invite sport and commercial fishermen to work with us on these issues," Caplan said. "Over and over again, we have been saying, 'Work with us, and we'll minimize any kind of disruption.'"
There will be no subsistence fisheries in the mouth of the Kenai River, he said, since the board can create fisheries only in waters adjoining federal land. On the Kenai Peninsula, that means waters adjoining the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest. Kenai Fjords National Park is closed to subsistence users.
Caplan said there could be subsistence fisheries in Kenai and Skilak lakes and in parts of the upper Kenai River that adjoin federal lands. Below Skilak Lake and the confluence with the Killey, though, the Kenai River lies outside the refuge and national forest.
"Anyone who fishes in the mouth of the river -- we wouldn't attempt to regulate anything down there," Caplan said. "The way it might go is, if we needed more escapement to allow for subsistence upstream, we might ask for restrictions downstream. We might ask the state to allow an extra day of escapement to go upstream."
He said it is difficult to predict what restrictions might be needed to protect subsistence, since nobody knows what subsistence proposals the Kenaitzes or anyone else will make.
However, there are few places in Alaska where subsistence fishers have trouble getting fish, he said, and subsistence users account for just 1 percent of Alaska's fishery harvest. Caplan said he cannot imagine a situation any time soon where even substantial increases in subsistence would affect many stocks.
"At the same time, there's not a subsistence fishery in the state that's held in a location that's even remotely similar to the Kenai River," said Mike Bethe, area sport fish biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.
Gino Del Frate, assistant area wildlife biologist for the Department of Fish and Game in Homer, said there could be cuts to state hunts depending on what subsistence hunts the federal board authorizes.
At particular risk is the state by-permit moose hunt between Skilak and Tustumena lakes, he said. There is already a federal subsistence hunt there for residents of Ninilchik, Port Graham, Nan-walek and Seldovia. That starts 10 days before the state's general moose season. So far, subsistence hunters have taken just a couple of moose each year.
"If all Kenai Peninsula residents had that opportunity, you'd probably see some loss of our permit hunts," he said.
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