The Federal Subsistence Board has closed a worrisome loophole that might have allowed Kenai Peninsula fishers to gillnet rainbow trout under the pretext of fishing for whitefish.
Meeting by telephone last week, the board banned the use of gillnets for subsistence fishing in federal waters on the Kenai Peninsula, said Gary Sonnevil, project leader for the Fishery Resource Office of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Soldotna. The board's action addresses his immediate concerns, he said.
The board left intact a provision that allows subsistence fishers to keep rainbow trout taken incidental to ice fishing for other species, he said, but that is not as big a worry.
"Ice fishing does occur. It's a popular activity," he said. "But it doesn't occur in quantity until November or even January, depending on how thick the ice gets."
The board will revisit subsistence fishing rules next winter, Sonnevil said. Meanwhile, fishing for rainbow trout through the ice with a pole already is legal in many areas under state sport-fishing rules. The only difference is that state bag limits would not apply to federal subsistence fishers who keep rainbows incidentally taken while fishing through the ice for other species.
"I think the incidental harvest of rainbow trout in waters under federal subsistence jurisdiction is going to be very small," Sonnevil said.
It was only in October that the Federal Subsistence Board took jurisdiction over subsistence fishing in lakes and streams that border federal subsistence lands. Kenai Fjords National Park is closed to subsistence, so, on the Kenai Peninsula, that means lakes and streams bordering the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge and Chugach National Forest.
In general, before subsistence harvest can occur, the board must determine that particular communities have customarily used specific stocks, then create the appropriate hunts or fisheries. However, when the board assumed fishery jurisdiction, it adopted state subsistence fishing rules as a first approximation.
The new rules make rural residents of the greater Cook Inlet area eligible for year-round subsistence harvest in waters under federal jurisdiction of fish other than salmon, trout, char, Dolly Varden, grayling and burbot.
On the peninsula, Sonnevil said, that opens the door for subsistence harvest of whitefish, lampreys, longnose suckers and northern pike. The loophole appeared because when the federal board adopted the state rules, it somehow omitted a state clause banning the use of gillnets for subsistence in fresh waters of the Kenai Peninsula.
Until last week, the federal rules authorized subsistence fishers to use fishing poles or nets and to keep rainbow trout caught incidental to net or through-the-ice fisheries for other species.
The second piece of the problem came last month when the federal board classified the entire Kenai Peninsula as rural and eligible for the federal subsistence priority.
Previously, Ninilchik, Cooper Landing, Hope, Seldovia, Nan-walek and Port Graham were the only peninsula communities classified as rural. Last month, though, the board determined that even the peninsula's major population centers are rural.
That determination should appear in the Federal Register by the end of this month. Then, all of the peninsula's roughly 50,000 residents will qualify for the federal subsistence priority.
On May 19, Sonnevil and Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, wrote the board to request an emergency closure of all subsistence fishing within the refuge.
"Most Kenai Peninsula wild rainbow trout and steelhead populations require very conservative management to sustain their populations," they wrote.
Sonnevil said subsistence gillnets also might kill salmon, though subsistence fishers could not legally keep those. That would result in waste.
He and West wrote the board that there are essentially no subsistence fisheries occurring within the refuge now.
"However, interest by large numbers of newly designated rural residents has been high as they are seeking new subsistence opportunities," they wrote.
An emergency closure of subsistence fishing would close a loophole that could cause damage to refuge resources, they wrote. After the closure, Sonnevil said, the board could address local fisheries species by species.
"For example, if we were going to have a subsistence fishery for sockeyes on the refuge and in the national forest, we could say where and when it would take place," he said.
The board declined to close subsistence fishing altogether on the refuge, but chose instead to ban the use of gillnets peninsulawide, including within Chugach National Forest.
Sonnevil said the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and the Federal Subsistence Southcentral Region-al Advisory Council were consulted.
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