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Dip in the fishing

Closing Kenai dipnetting causes financial strain

Posted: Tuesday, July 25, 2006

 

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  Red salmon sit in a dipnet as dipnet fishermen work the mouth of the Kenai River earlier this month. The number of people who participate in the fishery and the number of fish they take is growing, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Photo by M. Scott Moon

Whitney Hitchcock collects a parking fee for the city of Kenai at the entrance to the south beach of the Kenai River last week. The dipnet fishery has become a significant source of cash for the city and for local businesses.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Compared to other fisheries, the Kenai River dipnet fishery is the new kid on the block, but despite its young age, this fishery has quickly grown and continues to grow with each passing year.

“It’s probably the only one that is still growing,” in contrast to the shrinking commercial fishery and the sport fishery, which has nearly reached its plateau, said Jeff Fox, a management biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Soldotna.

While the Cook Inlet Personal Use Dip Net Fishery Management Plan was adopted at a 1981 Board of Fisheries meeting, the Kenai River dipnet fishery didn’t occur until 1982.

No harvest is known for this year, but in 1983, Fish and Game recorded 7,562 sockeye were taken.

“Back before the ’90s, it was only a small percentage,” Fox said in regard to the piece taken by dipnetters from the overall harvest of the sockeye pie.

“Then, set days went in,” Fox added.

 

Red salmon sit in a dipnet as dipnet fishermen work the mouth of the Kenai River earlier this month. The number of people who participate in the fishery and the number of fish they take is growing, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

After that is when everything began to change. In 1996, the old, nonpermitted, dipnet fishery triggered by sonar counts and with a daily bag limit of just six fish was changed.

Instead, a set season was established with permit-required fishing allowed 24 hours a day and with a seasonal limit of 25 salmon per head of household and 10 for each additional family member.

A total of 14,576 permits were issued that year and 102,821 sockeye were harvested from the Kenai River. Since 1996, however, the number of permits issued and fish harvested has grown exponentially, particularly in recent years (see side bar).

Fish and Game is still compiling the numbers from 2005, but according to Jim Hasbrouck, research coordinator with Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish, preliminary numbers indicate 21,761 permits were issued and roughly 238,000 sockeye were harvested. However, these number are incomplete.

“Twelve percent of the permits issued for 2005 still have not been returned and several permit holders did not record the site they fished at, as well,” Hasbrouck said.

He said reminder letters have been sent to the permit holders in an attempt to obtain this delinquent data, and “when you add the missing permit information, that number will probably be even closer to 300,000.”

Hasbrouck said unreturned permits have been an annual occurrence since 1996, but this season existing regulations may be enforced that would entail a $200 citation for anyone who hasn’t returned their permit by Aug. 15.

With so many fish returning and being harvested annually, many have come to expect all the benefits and burdens that the dipnet fishery brings, which is why the effects of this fishery being closed — an effort by Fish and Game biologists to attain their minimum escapement goal of 650,000 fish for the Kenai River — are being felt throughout the community.

“The dipnet closure is definitely a loss to Kenai,” said the city’s Mayor Pat Porter.

This loss is an economic one, according to Kenai’s Finance Director Larry Semmens. In 2005, the city made $173,464 from the 22-day dipnet fishery, but Semmens said Fish and Game’s prediction of a weak salmon return caused him to draft a more conservative $146,000 budget for 2006. He said the city may even fall short of this budget based on the fishery’s closure last Friday.

“We were already seeing less revenue even before the closure,” Semmens said. As of July 19, only $56,000 had been generated from dipnet parking and boat launch fees, as opposed to $82,361 by this same time last year.

Semmens said that, historically, last weekend would have been the peak of dipnet fishing on the Kenai River, and as such the city stood to lose as much as $18,000 during this time period, and as much as $75,000 if the fishery remains closed for the rest of the season.

“This would mean we wouldn’t have as much money for future improvements,” he said. The newly constructed boat ramp, road leading from the boat ramp, new restrooms and new plank benches are a few of the improvement made to the dipnet fishery with revenue generated by it in the past.

“There is also the cascade affect from fewer people being in town and spending money,” Semmens said. This second loss has the potential to affect sales taxes.

Bob Frates, Kenai Parks and Recreation director, said the fishery’s closure was “double-sided.”

“It’s unfortunate for the city, and really all of Alaska, because the dipnet fishery has tremendous recreational value. It brings a lot of people to the beach and the community,” he said.

On the positive side, Frates said city crews will likely have to spend less time combing the beach to clean the garbage that is left over by the thousands of Alaskans who normally flock there.

“I don’t think we’ll see the aftermath of accumulated trash as if it were open the full time,” he said.

Kenai Police Lt. Kim Wannamaker said his department also would likely see less action on the beach as a result of the dipnet fishery’s closure.

“It’ll definitely mean less time at the mouth of the river,” he said.

According to the city’s final report for the 2005 dipnet fishery, the Kenai Police Department and seasonal enforcement officers handled 244 dipnet-related calls for service, compared to 203 in 2004 and 49 in 2003.

These calls for service included: cash pick-ups multiple times daily from three pay shacks, plus iron ranger cash retrievals, hit-and-run complaints, illegal parking, complaints associated with campfires and littering, four-wheeler and off-road vehicle operations, theft, fights and disorderly conduct, and welfare checks.

“The department also assisted in rescuing three float-dipnetters (bobbers) in the mouth of the river who were caught in the outgoing current, impounded four vehicles, issued hundreds of warnings and arrested one person for domestic violence,” the report states.

Regardless of the impacts the fishery’s closure will have in the present, Porter said she understands and supports the decision of Fish and Game biologists to manage the fishery for future generations.

“I think it teaches us how fragile that resource is,” she said.

Porter also remained optimistic that a big push of fish would still come in and the dipnet fishery would reopen.

“It’s possible,” Fox said. But if this situation were to play out, he said it would likely be the end of July at the earliest, since Fish and Game test fishing nets are still not reporting large numbers of sockeye in Cook Inlet.

Growing fishery

Year Permits Percent Kenai dipnet

issued returned harvest

1996 14,576 92 102,821

1997 14,919 92 114,619

1998 15,535 85 103,847

1999 17,197 83 149,504

2000 16,107 84 98,262

2001 16,915 85 150,766

2002 17,568 81 180,028

2003 18,888 83 223,580

2004 21,616 82 262,831

2005 21,761 88 238,000-300,000*

*Numbers for the 2005 season are still being compiled.

Information obtained from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.



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