Fishing for new limits: Unrestricted growth translates into a crowded river

Voices of the Peninsula

Posted: Tuesday, May 16, 2006

By now most interested Kenai River fishermen have heard of the recommendation by the Kenai River Special Management Area board (KRSMA) to increase the horsepower on the river from 35 to 50 hp. What they haven’t heard is the rest of the recommendation package that may greatly affect their ability to access the fishery as they have become accustomed to. Along with the 50 hp recommendation, KRSMA has also made the following recommendations that would put more burden on private boaters; 1) all motors would have to be “06” EPA compliant. (Almost all guides have updated motors so they would basically be exempt from this stipulation), more on this later; 2) advised Parks to look into an educational program on boating behavior for all users; 3) make it mandatory for all boaters to register with Parks before they could access the river.

This third recommendation was tabled for later discussion, however, as you can see all of these could make it more difficult for private boaters. Guides would basically be exempt because they already register with Parks annually and are now required to attend a KPC curriculum class on various aspects of ethical behavior, boating and habitat protection.

If this effort toward registration and boater education is predicated on guide requirements, then it is ill fated. The sportfish guide industry should expect to be held to a higher standard because they are operating in a commercial environment of a public resource and should be responsible for the safety and actions of their paying clients.

Private boaters, on the other hand, should expect to enjoy these same resources without unnecessary requirements or restrictions. I believe public awareness about safety and habitat issues can be accomplished with educational kiosks at the boat launches and through voluntary seminars provided by Parks, however, it should never be a mandatory requirement before a private boater could access the river. I also see no value in boater registration since all boats now have to have Coast Guard ID numbers, which could be used to identify them if violations are in question.

The “06” EPA compliancy issue is another story. This regulation is presumed to make 50 hp 4-stroke motors built before 1998 and all 2-stroke motors illegal to use on the Kenai River. While we should all be concerned about hydrocarbon contamination from outboard motor use, this recommendation has the potential to deny access to many private boaters unless they can come up with $5,000 or so for a new compliant motor. Over the last 15 years or so, many small boat owners have opted for the less expensive 2-stroke motors and expect to get many years of good service out of them. The Kenai could become the only public motorized waterway in the state where their motors would suddenly become illegal.

How did we get here anyway?

I believe it is because Parks has allowed unrestricted growth of the guide industry to the point where we are now asking the public to suffer the consequences. A crowded, busy fishery is now driving some of these recommendations, and the presumption must be that if we switch to higher horsepower and more speed then we need further requirements on all users.

Over the last 10 years, guide boats are the fastest growing segment of users on the river. During common days of usage, July boat counts, below the Soldotna bridge, indicate that guide boats comprise 60 percent morning boats and 70 percent of afternoon boats. There are now 365 registered fishing guides on the Kenai. This coupled with the fact that two-a-day trips have almost double since 2001 means not only more guides, but also more guided hours.

All surveys show “too many guides” rate as the highest priority of dissatisfaction for all boaters. As a private boater, I feel Parks has an obligation to deal with this single issue before consideration of regulation changes that adversely affect the public sector. Parks own Comprehensive Management plan states, “Numerical limits should be imposed on sport fishing guides before restrictions are considered which may affect the general public.”

Enough is enough, something needs to be done about the unrestricted growth of the sportfishing guide industry. Last year saw one of the largest growths in motorized guides with 21 new guides.

As we weigh the 50 hp issues, I think it is important that we consider all factors from habitat to economic hardships. What will the second half of the boat wake study have to say about other erosion factors? Will the 50 hp change encourage more use and higher fuel burn both contributing to more hydrocarbon concerns? Will additional speed become an even larger concern in increasingly crowded conditions?

Last year’s boat counts increased by 6 percent from the previous year. That means if we continue at this level, in five years there will be another 100 boats a day operating below the Soldotna bridge in July. I do agree that something will have to be done soon to address this issue as manufacturers haven’t made a true 35 hp motor in years, and EPA is about to enact national regulations making it illegal to utilize detuning kits or carburetor restriction plates because they adversely affect engine efficiency and thus contribute to fuel contamination.

I don’t know where the answers lay, however, I do feel it is something we shouldn’t rush into so that we don’t make mistakes we have to reverse later that could have so much effect on so many people, not to mention the resource.

Dwight Kramer lives in Kenai and is a private fisherman, past chairman of the local Fish and Game Advisory Committee and member of the past KRSMA working group responsible for trying to find a way to limit guides on the Kenai River.

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