Between 50 and 100 Kenai Peninsula residents eager to see a change in the state's subsistence fishing rules staged a peaceful protest Saturday afternoon on a Cook Inlet beach just south of the Kenai River.
The protesters, led by Nikiski resident Tim O'Brien, illegally set their small gillnet in the water as a form of civil disobedience. According to O'Brien, the protest was a way of challenging the state's subsistence rules, which don't generally allow peninsula residents subsistence fishing rights because the area is not considered rural.
"Those are our public beaches, they belong to us," O'Brien said.
A number of local politicians and political hopefuls showed up to witness the protest, including U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski; Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski; Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Gary Superman; state senate candidate Jerry Ward and state house candidate John "Ozzie" Osborne.
All but Murkowski made their way to the site of the actual protest.
From the parking lot, she responded to several people who challenged her to make the short trip to the actual fishing site by saying her presence there would lend the protest, "a level of federal support for the civil disobedience."
However, Murkowski did say she sympathized with the protesters, and that the event could help shake things up at the state level.
"This type of activity here this afternoon helps to give direction," she said.
Murkowski told O'Brien she be-lieves the subsistence issue is best left up to state officials.
"It is through the state laws, it is through the administration that we have to resolve this," she said.
Although all Alaska residents have the right to fish the Kenai and Kasilof river personal-use fisheries, O'Brien said it isn't the same as subsistence, and that the current fishery confines people to small areas in which to harvest the large salmon runs that return to Cook Inlet each summer.
"We don't like to be bottled up in the river," he said.
The protest was peaceful, and law enforcement officials did not show up to write any citations. However, some of the protesters were more than willing to get in the water and challenge state law.
"If this is a people's protest, let's pull the net into the water right now," exhorted protester Gerald McQueen of Nikiski before the fishing began.
McQueen said it's time the people stand up for their fishing rights because the current state of the personal-use fishery is unfair, dangerous and goes against the will of the people.
He said the limited personal-use fishery in Kasilof has turned into chaos, with armed people staking out beach sites weeks in advance of the actual fishing time.
"I've had to take guns from people," McQueen said. "It's gotten ridiculous."
Two signs posted at the protest read "In memory of Donald "Toot" Halstead," and "In memory of Jimmy Man Chun."
Halstead died in court last year of a heart attack while challenging an illegal fishing citation, while Chun drowned at the mouth of the Kenai in July while dipnetting.
McQueen said he blames the state of Alaska for Halstead and Chun's deaths and said his friend Toot was killed because of unfair fishing policies.
"They killed him in the court room," he said.
Others who spoke at the protest agreed, saying that the state has gone too far in restricting subsistence uses for people in places like the peninsula.
"Because we live in the wrong zip code, we're not allowed to have subsistence now," Ward, who is running against Sen. Tom Wagoner for the Kenai area state senate seat, told the crowd.
"Subsistence is a God-given right."
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