Dipnetters really, really love sockeye salmon. Any hour of the day or night through most of July they can be found standing chest-deep in the icy Kenai or Kasilof river, a cold rain on their shoulders, just for the opportunity to fill their freezer with the red fish.
"I've come here for years and years," said Linda Seetomona of Anchorage, who was dipnetting on the Kenai beach Thursday. "I like coming here even when there's no fish."
Harriet Cutshall of Eagle River said she likes the high limit and the quality of the fish, which she said is as good as the salmon she grew up eating in Nome.
"And the people are nice and friendly here," she added.
Gordon Hoyt of Anchor River has split his time between the Kasilof and Kenai from year to year. This year, he's on the Kenai.
"It depends on what part of the week you're in how the fishing is. The Kasilof gets pretty crowded on the weekends," he said.
Hoyt fillets his catch and puts it up for the winter, smoking some of it and sharing some with the elderly.
"It's fun to catch fish," he said. "I think it's in my genes."
He said the camaraderie among fishers is pleasant, though he likes it when others give him a little more elbow room.
"Salmon is a real parable for life," he said. "Pacific salmon especially bring to light the mortality of fish and man."
Pat Burke-Peters lives on the bluff in Old Town Kenai but does not hit the beach until she sees the fish jumping.
"Then I call my friends at the hospital and that's the day we all call in late," she said. "It's a fun activity to do with friends.
"Where else in the world can you put a net in the water and pull out fish? It's just a wonderful opportunity."
For centuries people have taken salmon out of Kenai Peninsula rivers for personal use. Natives, the Russians and early settlers all gathered salmon to put on their tables.
Even when saltries and canneries started taking much of the fish, there was enough surplus to put some up for the winter.
Before 1950, there was no regulation on personal-use fishing. In 1951, the federal government began requiring permits and started closing certain areas of Cook Inlet to personal-use gillnets. In 1960, the new state gave a new name, "subsistence," to what federal managers had called "personal use." The state allowed subsistence gillnets through much of Cook Inlet, except between Anchor Point and Ninilchik.
In 1978, the Legislature passed a law giving subsistence priority over other uses. In 1981, the Alaska Board of Fisheries revived the old term and began creating personal-use fisheries to allow fill-the-freezer fisheries without the priority over sport and commercial use.
In 1981, the Board of Fisheries established a personal-use gillnet fishery in much of the inlet and dipnet fisheries in the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, only when certain escapement goals were met.
The escapement trigger to open dipnetting on the Kenai River was 500,000 fish until 1988. Then, on the heels of record red runs, it was bumped to 700,000 fish through 1992. In 1993, the trigger was 400,000; 1994, 700,000; and 1995, 450,000. Some years the required escapement was not met, and there was no dipnet fishery.
The dipnet fishery as we know it today was created in 1996, when the state instituted the 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week fishery at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. It took the city of Kenai somewhat by surprise, according to Mayor John Williams.
"We were totally unprepared for it and had no idea what impact would be felt in the city," he said. "Well, we found out very soon, and it scared us."
The 90-foot Kenai bluff began eroding at an accelerated rate as people rappelled down it to put a dipnet in the water, and the protective sand dunes on the river's north shore were all but destroyed by motorists and those on foot, all trying to reach the water. With the large number of people from all over the state came a blight of garbage.
"I had 2-by-4-foot pictures blown up and went before the fish board showing beer bottles, six-pack rings, garbage and human feces strewn up the beach," Williams said. "It took us two years to get them to disallow fishing upstream of that little no-name creek there."
Williams, and others, have called the fishery an unfunded mandate by the board.
After much lobbying, the city received some funds from the state to put up barriers around and create paths through the sand dunes. Then the city spent $100,000 of its own money to put in a parking lot, where $5 is collected for each vehicle parked there.
Last year, according to Kenai Finance Director Larry Semmens, the city brought in $23,350 in parking and boat launching fees. It's a sum that pays for the city to hire seasonal police and enforcement officers to monitor the area, but they do not police the fishery itself.
"Their duty is to keep the peace and keep the place squared away," Williams said.
Kenai Police Lt. Jeff Kohler said there are many hidden costs associated with the dipnet fishery beyond the two extra officers hired.
"There are many, many hours spent by everyone in the city," he said. "There are a lot of things revolving around the dipnet fishery that people don't see."
He said those include counting the money received, Parks and Recreation personnel staffing the boat launch at all hours, preseason preparation and training time, signage and the hours permanent police officers must take to patrol both the north and south shores when the seasonal officers are off duty.
"The north shore is our priority, because of the huge number of people that show up," Kohler said. "But we are spending more time on the south shore than in the past. We're trying to get someone over there daily."
Since the city began controlling traffic to the north shore, more and more fishers are heading south, causing problems there.
"We have camping problems over there, and human waste problems," Kohler said.
Earlier this year, the city council passed a law prohibiting vehicles from vegetated areas of the beach on the south side. Portable toilets may follow, but at a cost.
"That day will come, but it's going to be expensive due to location and access problems," Kohler said. "Then there will be some sort of daily-use fee. People will have to support it to some extent."
This year the city asked the Alaska Legislature to help it fund improvements to the south side and to the boat launch, but was turned down flat.
"There is a tremendous amount of pressure on the other side, and we can't take it upon ourselves to police the whole countryside," Williams said.
Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, also tried to find money to help manage the dipnet fishery by proposing a $10 user fee on top of the $15 resident sport fishing license required to dipnet.
"Its primary purpose was to stop private property trespass on the river and to find out how many fish are taken out of the river," Lancaster said.
He said current free dipnet licenses are easy to obtain and rarely returned with a catch summary written on them.
"If people have a license and pay for it, we can assume they got 25 fish," he said.
Burke-Peters thinks Lancaster's bill is a great idea.
"Right now it's a free-for-all down there," she said. "People have to be watched. I know all the local people would be happy to pay a small fee for enforcement."
She said it's a wonderful fishery for the common person, but she believes people take advantage of it.
"The rules (of the fishery) are fair, the allotment is fair. I think they should allocate some money for the fishery," she said. "They shouldn't leave the disgusting mass of rotting fish guts and heads all over the beach."
The funds generated through the $10 dipnet bill would go to Fish and Game to help regulate the fishery. Williams hoped some of that money would be made available through grants to the city and borough to better accommodate the fishers.
"Rep. Lancaster got in all sorts of trouble for that," Williams said. "People were yellin' and screamin' about it."
"I got beat up terribly for four months on this thing," Lancaster said.
"I don't think it's wrong to protect resources and private property. It's just like mom and apple pie."
The bill finally made its way out of the House Resources Committee into the Finance Committee just before the session ended. Lancaster said it would be addressed when the Legislature reconvenes in January.
The state could probably police the fishery for $30,000 a summer, using three people circulating through the Kenai and Kasilof beaches and another patrolling the drift dipnetters, said Jeff Fox, commercial fisheries management biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
"The finer you want to manage things, the more money you have to spend in monitoring it," he said.
He said having a more solid catch number would benefit management of the commercial gillnet fishery as well.
He said an alternative to buying both a $15 resident sport fishing license and a $10 dipnet permit would be to create a new $10 dipnetting license that did not require a sportfishing license.
"Then that money would go directly into enforcing that fishery," he said.
Currently, the department receives little money to manage dipnetting on the peninsula, which creates problems for enforcing violations. (See related story, page A-1.)
"We get involved if something bad goes on and we're right there, but we don't spend a lot of time there," Fox said.
Since the current version of personal-use dipnetting began on the peninsula, yearly catches have been between 103,000 and 150,000 sockeyes on the Kenai and 10,000 and 45,000 on the Kasilof. The other personal-use fishery on the peninsula, the Kasilof set gillnet, has brought in between 9,000 and 18,000 fish per year.
Catch numbers from 2000 are not firmed up yet -- Fox said it takes a year for them to be compiled -- but preliminary numbers indicate a catch of between 90,000 and 100,000 on the Kenai, close to 25,000 in the Kasilof dipnet fishery and about 15,000 in the Kasilof set gillnet fishery. That was during a summer with a poor return of reds.
This summer, the red run seems stronger, prompting additional commercial openings, especially in the Kasilof subdistricts.
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