Gillnetters prep for opening as habitat loss forces threat of closure

Posted: Friday, June 16, 2000

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Some 200 people were hard at work Friday, catching red salmon bound for the Kasilof River in the upper Cook Inlet's only remaining personal use gillnet fishery.

The fishery is an 18-year tradition that provides roughly 40,000 red salmon annually for hundreds of families. But it's on the brink of change, and perhaps elimination because of habitat damage.

So many four-wheelers, motorcycles and four-wheel-drive vehicles have cut fresh trails in the delicate grasslands of the Kasilof's flood plain that the future of the fishery is in jeopardy, officials said.

Signs posted this week tell people to stay off the growing spiderweb of roads and instruct drivers instead to throw their vehicles into low gear and grind through soft beach sand to reach their favorite fishing spot.

The new rules don't sit well with many fishermen.

''They can't do that! These roads have been here a thousand years!'' said Al Priest of Kasilof as he and a friend pounded stakes and laid rope in preparation for Friday's opener.

He and others said they would continue to drive the main sandy track across the grassland to reach their beach sites. Campers and two-wheel-drive vehicles would get mired driving the beach, they said.

The mood among people who've fished the Kasilof for years was a little jumpy Thursday, and many resented being placed in a position where they could get ticketed for taking part in a state-sanctioned fishery.

The state Department of Fish and Game created the fishery and expanded it several years ago, biologist Jeff Fox said.

The agency feels responsible for minimizing any resulting property damage, especially since it's occurring on someone else's land, he said.

The grassy dunes protect the river's mouth and represent some important fish habitat. If too much grass is lost, then the dunes could be washed out by a strong winter storm, Fox said.

The grassy estuary has several owners: the state Mental Health Land Trust, the Department of Natural Resources and a few individuals. While the state generally allows public access across its lands, it draws the line when important habitat and property values are at stake.

''We don't close Trust land to general use like this unless there's a reason,'' said Steve Planchon, the Trust's executive director.

The Trust tolerated people using one of the older existing sand roads through the grasslands last summer, Planchon told the Anchorage Daily News. Aerial photos comparing last year with this summer showed a widening network of roads and trails cutting through the greenery.

So they've ordered no driving or camping on the grass, period.

People who fish the beach appear well aware of the state's concern.

Many share it.

They blame much of the damage on children playing on four-wheelers and motorcycles while their parents tend fish sites. Some campers said they made a point of leaving their off-road vehicles at home this year.

''People are being a lot more respectful of this because they're afraid of losing it,'' said Lee Sterner, who divides his time between Kenai and Anchorage.

This fishery may last only a week or so, making campers wonder what damage they could do. But it's followed by the more popular dipnet fishery July 10 through Aug. 5.

The site also serves as an occasional summer party spot for underage drinkers.

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