When people think of the Kenai River, it’s most often king salmon that come to mind.
But this month, attention has focused on another salmon that calls the Kenai home the sockeye. Reds are smaller in size, and therefore fame, but they can eclipse even their 70-plus-pound cousins in importance.
It’s sockeyes that draw the hordes of combat fishermen to the Russian-Kenai River confluence every year. It is their flesh that dipnetters seek to fill their freezers. Their abundance can make or break a commercial fisherman’s season.
And it is sockeyes or the lack thereof that have brought economic disaster to the central Kenai Peninsula this summer.
Make no mistake it is an economic disaster. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Kenai Peninsula Borough administration already have recognized this fact, and both are lobbying the governor for state assistance to mitigate the effects of this year’s dismal red run.
The state needs to step up to the plate and recognize that our sockeye slump is as financially devastating as an earthquake or flood can be and act accordingly.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s escapement goal for the Kenai River is a minimum of 500,000 spawning sockeyes. This year’s run had only numbered 354,244 fish as of Wednesday’s count, causing Fish and Game to severely restrict commercial and sportfishing for reds in the Kenai, and close down the dipnetting and educational fisheries altogether.
· The city of Kenai estimates it will lose $75,000 from the dipnetting closure, money it uses to operate and enhance the fishery with everything from providing port-a-potties to building a new road at the city’s boat launch.
· Dipnetters are out a valuable food source. Some may see salmon as a luxury meal, but others consider sockeyes a staple during the winter, and now must fill their freezers with other often costlier alternatives.
· Sportfishermen also are out meat for their freezers, plus the excitement and enjoyment that comes from a successful day on the river. This in turn injures our area’s tourism industry, since less fish to catch means less fishermen coming to catch them.
· The user group facing the most financial strain from the run’s failure is the commercial fishing industry. This encompasses not only boat captains and setnet site owners who pay their bills by selling their catch, but everyone involved in the industry from deckhands to net pickers, camp cooks and cannery workers.
When this many people have a stake in the same resource, conflict is inevitable, especially when there aren’t enough fish to go around. True to form, dipnetters feel maligned after all, subsistence is one of the tenants of our state constitution.
Sportfishermen grumble that their take isn’t enough to seriously affect escapement, so why are they being restricted along with the poundage-gobbling commercial interests?
UCIDA, meanwhile, points the finger at Fish and Game and the Board of Fish, alleging their management decisions are overly political and favor sportfishing interests, to the point where the run suffers.
Excessive spawning escapements, as happened in 1999 and 2000, can result in weak runs down the line, since too many salmon fry overcompete for a limited amount of food. Other factors that may have contributed to this year’s dismal return are competition from beavers and the northern pike infestation, as well as warm and low water levels (dare we say, global warming?).
While we don’t agree that the Board of Fish and Fish and Game hold blatant sportfishing biases, it is apparent that overescapement in year’s past contributed to this year’s underescapement, and perhaps wiser management decisions then would have alleviated the need for such drastic ones now. On the other hand, estimating run size is sometimes more guesswork than scientific certainty, and Mother Nature has a knack for throwing a monkey wrench into management policies.
The one bright spot in this bleak season is that Fish and Game has demonstrated its allegiance to the fish first, before any one group of fishermen. All user groups have been restricted in the goal of achieving the target escapement.
Our hope is that safeguarding the run continues to take top priority. This means Fish and Game needs to gather as much information as it can about why this run has crashed, and the Board of Fish needs to re-evaluate its management policies to make sure this doesn’t happen again.
Empty nets, freezers and pocketbooks are tough to bear, but an empty river would be a far worse fate to endure.
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