Catch-and-release a bad policy

Regulations that favor nonresidents run counter to traditional Alaska values

Posted: Monday, September 16, 2002

Ken Marsh, former editor of Alaska Magazine, in the September issue says, "Few places in the civilized world retain a stronger connection to ... eating well from the country than Alaska."

We Alaskans derive pleasure, satisfaction, and identity in carrying on the nonwasteful and traditional harvest of the state's resources of the Native people present before us. However, here on the Kenai, that traditional connection to the land, to eating well from the country, is under siege by the tourist-oriented sportfishing industry.

Back in February, the Board of Fisheries, pressured by Kenai River Sportfishing Association and Kenai River Professional Guides Association, with support from Sport Fish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game attempted to make the entire first run of Kenai kings catch-and-release fishing, with bait, while allowing fish over 55-inches to be killed.

For the first time in Alaska's history, traditional resident harvest of excess salmon stocks was to be denied in favor of wastefully killing the fish just for fun and tourist dollars. The Board of Fisheries only retreated from its radical position in the face of public outrage and will now reconsider management of first-run kings in March.

In the weeks ahead, the Sport Fish Division will be surveying anglers to assess public opinion regarding management of first-run kings. Sport Fish needs to know how we, resident Alaskans who own the fish, choose to use the first-run kings: Do we want to continue the traditional harvest of the run's excess stocks or do we wish to devote those excess stocks to the waste of catch-and-release mortality for the sake of tourist dollars?

As Bill Wirin, local bed and breakfast owner and Kenai River Sportfishing Association member, puts it, "the first run is in trouble, and catch and release will protect the run." (Clarion, Aug. 30)

Wirin disingenuously asks: "Do you want to

kill kings or support the economy?"

The tourist industry's coveting first-run kings, however, is not about killing kings vs. the economy, and it's not about conservation. It's about the continued and selfish growth of the sportfishing industry at the expense of Alaska values.

The first run of Kenai kings, in spite of this year's low numbers, is not in trouble. It wasn't

in trouble in February, and it's not in trouble now. Nor is that the reason the Board of Fisheries tried to make the run catch and release. The first run is simply a small run. It always has been and probably always will be.

Sport Fish biologists are adamant: The first run is not in trouble except for some concern about the perceived decline in the largest fish, the very fish the guides want and continue to kill. Any talk about making the run catch and release for conservation reasons is pure moose manure.

The sportfishing industry simply wants more money. Already, guides harvest about 90 percent of first-run kings; now they hoggishly want all of them to sell to yahoos who don't mind killing fish just for the fun of it. The sportfishing industry fully intends to kill as many kings as do Alaskans fishing for dinner. The difference is that kings killed by catch-and-release fishing make a mockery of Alaska's wanton waste laws and debase Alaska traditions. Catch-and-release conservation is more moose manure.

The truth is that while most sportfishing tourists are a welcome part of our economy here on the Kenai, expressions of the commercial sportfishing industry are becoming an unwelcome presence as they greedily and increasingly cannibalize our lifestyle and values as Alaskans.

The sportfishing industry doesn't need more opportunity to grow, it needs to be reined in and held in check. Nor will the Kenai Peninsula dry up and blow away if the sportfishing industry is curtailed to more sensible proportions. Fewer guides, less guided fishing and resident-only fishing days and areas are all needed to define a saner sportfishing industry presence among us.

And, if need be, Alaska's Legislature should enact laws that prioritize resident harvest of the state's fish resources. Sport Fish Division's mandate is to manage our fish on the basis of sustained yield. Sustained yield used to mean resident harvest, but now, with Sport Fish Division imagining itself as "... in the business of providing different 'product lines' for different 'markets' of recreational use," sustained yield means "whatever money will buy." Sport Fish Division itself is vulnerable to the lure of tourist dollars. While the division made about $2.3 million in 2001 from resident license sales, the division made $6.7 million from nonresident licenses. Money talks ... and tempts.

A contest for part of Alaska's heart and soul is upon us. The money connection between catch-and-release fishing and commercial sportfishing interests doesn't get a whole lot plainer, or cruder, or misleading than that coming from the catch-and-release crowd about first-run Kenai kings. While most Alaskans take great pride in continuing the traditional relationship to the land's wild resources of the Native peoples before us, there are those here who would tempt us to, as did Esau of old, to sell our birthright for a bigger bowl of soup. They've got money, they've got influence, and they want our fish. Be prepared to fight.

Lofty I stand from each sister land, patient and wearily wise,

With the weight of a world of sadness in quiet, passionless eyes;

Dreaming alone of a people, dreaming alone of a day,

When men shall not rape my riches, and curse me and go away;

Making a bawd of my bounty, fouling the hand that gave.

--Robert Service

John Nelson of Soldotna first moved to Alaska in 1961. He has lived in the state off and on ever since. Back in the early 1970s, he worked in the guiding business in the Talkeetna area. He says he has long since repented in sackcloth and ashes.

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