Fishing for answers to ensure peninsula's character stays intact, thoughts and questions come to mind:
What is the problem as it relates to Cook Inlet fisheries?
Too few fish? Too many fishers? Too many fish being allocated to people who don't deserve them? Too few fish being allocated to people who do deserve them? Management that favors some users over others? Do sheer numbers of a user group make them more deserving of the fish than smaller user groups?
While most people would agree the fish do belong to everyone -- and that does not mean just Alaskans -- most would take exception to fisheries management that divided up fish like toys in a sandbox: one for you, one for me, one for ... .
It should be cause for concern when the prediction for the future is that one group will influence the management of the fisheries by virtue of its size and votes. That's not management based on science, that's management based on political power and pressure. If Alaskans succumb to that kind of pressure, it will ring the death knell not only for our fisheries, but for ways of life that are integral to the peninsula's character.
Is our science good enough?
Most people will at least give lip service to the idea of managing fisheries based on the best science available. Science, however, is a work in progress. There's still much the experts don't know. That's why it's imperative that legislators not skimp on the Department of Fish and Game's budget. Money is needed for continuing research, which will help ensure sound fisheries decisions.
Alaska's biologists do a great job with the tools they have -- Cook Inlet's fish runs testify to that. Because so much is at stake with fisheries issues, however, legislators should never minimize the importance of the research. It is not a frill. It's a necessary tool to ensure sound decisions about fish and habitat.
One of the most important tools used in the management of Cook Inlet fisheries are the sonar fish counters. Because so much rides on the counters, an outside technical review of how well they work is in order.
What are we really willing to do to protect the habitat?
There's no doubt attitudes have changed over the last several years; people are much more aware of the value of the Kenai River watershed. Lots of projects have been undertaken to repair problems caused by erosion and anglers trampling riverbanks.
Still, there are signs we as a community are only willing to go so far to protect the habitat that provides so much for us economically, environmentally and even spiritually. The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly established 50-foot buffers to protect the riverbank in 1996, even though scientists had recommended a minimum of 100-foot setbacks. Our reluctance to limit some sport-angling activities or even establish a $10 dipnet fee also reveals the boundaries of our desire to protect fisheries habitat. In general, our attitude seems to be as long as the habitat protection requires no personal sacrifice it is the right thing to do.
We are kidding ourselves if we think we can maximize the use of the river and minimize our protection of it. The irony is protection works better and is cheaper than rehabilitation. Our piecemeal efforts may be good enough for today, but what kind of problems are we creating for those who follow us?
What's our vision for the Kenai Peninsula as it relates to fish?
It's hard to solve a problem if there's no long-term view. That long-term view should not come only from those who have economic interests in the fisheries. It should be driven by those who have sat on the sidelines of the debate, watching neighbor criticize neighbor over who should get the fish and why, when, where and how they should get them.
What we are really debating in our fish fights has very little to do with fish and everything to do with philosophy, politics, economics and ways of life. It is a sad commentary on how our community has dealt with this debate when an outsider characterizes us this way: ''Every time you go into a Cook Inlet (fish board) meeting, it's like Ali versus Foreman. Both groups are hardened. There's not much give between the user groups there.''
In order for the fish runs and the habitat to be protected, the Kenai Peninsula has got to find a better way.
We think most people's vision for our future includes a healthy, traditional commercial fisheries, as well as a healthy sport and personal-use fisheries. It includes a healthy watershed where we will take actions which future generations will describe as visionary. It includes residents and elected leaders with the will to sacrifice short-term gain for the long-term good. It includes an end to the contentious debate over fish -- and a model for a community getting together to solve one of its thorniest problems.
There may be no other place in the world that is faced with such an opportunity.
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