Board considers increasing, outlawing horsepower on Kenai River

Drifting to fix river crowding?

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

As the Kenai River fishing season kicks into gear, so are concerns overcrowding and boat safety. At the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board meeting Thursday, board members floated recommendations, new and old, aiming to increase serenity and decrease calamity on the river at the height of the fishing season.

At the forefront of many of the advisory board members’ minds and some of the community members who attended the meeting was the advisory board’s ongoing effort to raise the outboard horsepower limits on the Kenai River from 35 to 50.

In March, the advisory board recommended the Alaska Department Natural Resources change regulations to allow 50 hp motors on the river, a move some say would reduce wakes and pollution on the river.

The recommendation was based on the first part of a two-phase study being conducted by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

But in the letter responding to the recommendation, DNR Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation Director Jerry Lewanski said initial study results suggest multiple factors are responsible for determining wake energy and that it would be hasty to consider regulations before the full results of the study become available.

A longer than expected wait for study results, however, has frustrated some of the advisory board members, who say changes are needed sooner rather than later.

“We kind of drew the line in the sand, that if it isn’t finished in May, then we need to move on with our decision as an advisory group,” said Joe Connors, a member on the advisory board. “We need to stay on focus. We need to push it forward.”

The first phase of the study has been completed and published, but results from the second phase have been delayed due to a Hurricane Katrina study.

And although the grant funding the study allows researchers up to three years to complete and publish it, a window of time that will end 2008, advisory board members had expected the complete study results to be published much sooner.

But Connors said the horsepower limit change may be delayed without good reason.

“It’s like a Chicken Little analysis here, the sky is falling the, sky is falling, in terms of what could be in this study,” Connors said. “There might not be anything in this study that impacts 50 horsepower.”

Although supporting the 50 hp limit, one board member offered a second recommendation that could relieve chaos on the river, but make the 50 hp debate irrelevant.

“I (don’t) expect the KRSMA board to endorse my proposal,” Dick Hahn said as he explained his idea.

Hahn recommended making the river a drift-only fishery, and said the idea would disenfranchise many people, including the elderly, disabled and physically unfit, but result in a safer river.

“Many locals and other Alaskans feel they are already disenfranchised because of heavy boat traffic and feelings of intimidation and insecurity from trying to fish in very crowded hectic conditions,” he said.

Other board members agreed that something needed to be done, but that Hahn’s idea was not necessarily the best solution.

“One of these days if we don’t address that crowd ... we’re going to get something like this proposal shoved down our throat,” said Ted Wellman, a member of the advisory board. “We just can’t continue to ignore what goes on down on the lower river.”

Hahn said that, although the idea may sound a little extreme, he would not expect a drift-only fishery to be implemented all at once. He said he would recommend allowing guides to drift and that he would expect positive results.

“I have friends who take leave from work on Monday to go king salmon fishing on the lower river,” he said. “Especially in July, because there are no crowds. And they are very successful in catching kings.”

With the exception of Memorial Day, regulations prohibit fishermen on the Kenai River from fishing off motorized vessels on Mondays during May, June and July.

Wellman said he might support a more limited version of Hahn’s recommendation.

“There really is a limit as to how many people we can accommodate down there. We really need to be talking about ways to limit public and commercial access to that resource or we are not going to have a resource,” Wellman said. “So while I can’t support Dick and his proposal, I could probably be persuaded to go on a single additional day for drift.”

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