Alaska cannot afford to gamble fisheries away on catch-release

Posted: Tuesday, July 15, 2003

A recent letter to the editor attempts to justify catch-and-release fishing and slot limits as effective conservation measures that we should desire above all others. By liberally sprinkling his prose with statistics and quotes from widely varying biologic fishery studies, by speaking of "releasing the physically biggest quartile of the kings actually caught," by referring to "logarithmical odds," by letting us know he is a former Kenai resident and even signing his name with his MD moniker attached, the writer attempts to lend some irrefutable scientific credence to his speculations. By sorting through various reports and data, picking the "facts" that suit him, this eye doctor attempts to prove his assumptions.

Any verifiable truth in the report on how this grand new experiment to save a threatened fishery while maintaining a high degree of angler effort has not been written yet. That truth could very well be a less than welcome report, for when the real facts and variables finally become known, the threatened, large, five-ocean Kenai River king salmon may be beyond saving by any method.

To provide just one example: Conducting a catch-and-release fishery while using bait is a highly questionable practice. King salmon generally take baits deep into their mouths and the resulting hook damage to their gills is certain to raise the mortality of fish that are released with that damage to unacceptable levels. Contrary to what the letter writer wants you to believe, any one fish does not have to be caught and released 13 times before it may become mortally injured. All too often it's the first time that fish is hooked and released.

Mishandling of a fish while being hooked and released doesn't just happen every 13th time it is caught. A fish killed in this manner does not spawn and will not contribute to the future generations of its threatened existence. Neither will it be utilized as a sustainable resource of food for our residents.

While he claims otherwise, the justification presented to the Board of Fish for the rule changes that created slot limits and catch-and-release were crafted specifically to enable maintaining a high degree of angler effort on threatened stocks without closures to protect the runs. That fundamental change to the management plan, to make the fishery "stable and predictable" for a class of people who might enjoy some economic gain, instead of first providing for a maximum sustained harvest of our commonly owned resource for our residents, was exactly the point of the changes.

So while the writer wants you to believe his position is some kind of ethical ideal and that conservation of the noble king is his only concern, we have lost more harvest opportunity and are gambling with the very survival of threatened stocks.

You should be aware that this same person has also proposed eliminating our commercial salmon fishing industry, both set and drift, eliminating the opportunity of proxy fishing to provide food for our elderly and disabled residents, and eliminating the educational fisheries of our Native residents all to increase his opportunity to target more of the threatened, five-ocean Kenai king salmon, but all cloaked in the guise of conservation. His brand of "conservation" is exceptionally greedy.

We used to have a management plan to conserve endangered stocks by way of complete closures of effort when needed to ensure survival and restoration when those stocks were threatened. There is little question that practice was effective in providing sustained harvests and enabled us to traditionally share our resources, not only amongst our own many residents, but with our many visitors as well. That tried and tested plan was simply unacceptable to a select class of people who wish to economically benefit from their exclusive use and control of our commonly owned resource at the expense of all other users.

The ultimate success or the utter failure of instituting the newly concocted, so-called conservation tools of catch-and-release and slot limits, while concurrently maintaining a high degree of angler effort, will not be known for many years. The imperative question for the residents of this state should be whether we want to gamble on these new practices and continue to give up more and more of our harvest opportunities in order to satisfy a select class of people's desires for economic gain at the expense of resident needs and traditions.

That is the critical question and a fateful gamble we may not have the chance to revisit. We need to be sure we see beyond all the questionable opinions and come up with the correct decisions.

Paul Zimmerman


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