For years, it's been a good idea to have an attorney along when you fish the Kenai River. It's not because they're such good company, but because you need one to interpret the regulations.
Alaska's citizen-based system of making fishing and hunting regulations is both a blessing and a curse. Following is my explanation of what it takes to make or change a fishing regulation.
In the normal course of events, the Kenai River comes up for regulatory change every third year. Anyone can submit a proposal. Proposals are collected and published, in print and on-line, by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The proposals elicit written comments from citizens and groups, and are discussed in public by several Fish and Game Advisory Committees (ACs). The seven members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries then meet and listen to the ACs, public testimony and Fish and Game biologists. Finally, board members vote on the proposals, which they may have amended quite a bit from the original. If at least four of the seven votes are "for," that's a new or changed regulation for the book.
Trouble is, the board gets a blurry image of the proposals, the vast majority of which are corrupted by greed. Four major user groups compete for Cook Inlet salmon: sport, commercial, fishing guides and personal use. Nearly everyone wants more fish and more opportunities to fish, and the fisheries already are fully allocated. In other words, when the board votes to give more fish to Peter, it has to take them from Paul. Conservation, the board's most important mandate, is too often lost in the fog.
It doesn't help matters that board members have either a sport or commercial bias. Neither is it good that biologists who testify before the board don't advocate for conservation as often or as convincingly as they might. Or that the public stays away from these meetings in droves. Or that board members refuse to meet in the Kenai-Soldotna area.
The Kenai River attracts proposals like it draws anglers. Proposals by commercial fishermen tend to be anti-sport fishing: "Close the Kenai River to sport fishing on Tuesdays and Fridays. Windows." Proposals by guides tend to encourage more opportunity, even if it's only catch-and-release fishing: "Kenai River anglers can continue to sportfish from boats after retaining their daily bag limit of either king or coho salmon." Such proposals just muddy the already-turbid water.
One regulation I'd like is for the first 7 miles of the Kenai River downstream from Skilak Lake to be closed to king salmon fishing. Dark-red, early-run kings are being harvested in that area in July, when they're on their spawning redds. These early-run, main-stem spawners are vulnerable at this stage of their life history. It's high time they were protected.
Department of Fish and Game biologists don't like this kind of proposal. They want a study before justifying such a change. Even with study data in hand, they're caught between conserving fish and providing fishing opportunity. Regulations that conserve tend to reduce opportunity, so biologists have a real balancing act. Pressure from guides can be enough to tip the balance.
The Board of Fisheries, however, doesn't need the biologists' approval. I've seen the board take action when the biologists were either neutral or against a proposal. That ability, too, is also both blessing and curse, depending on which side you're on.
Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying the present system is bad. I'm just "telling it like it is."
After next year's fish-board meeting, don't expect fewer regulations for the Kenai River. There are more than 200 proposals for Upper Cook Inlet Finfish, about 100 of which could affect fishing on the Kenai River. Several will no doubt make it into the book.
Lawyers, rest easy. Your future on the river is assured.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries will meet in Anchorage at the Egan Center, Feb. 20-March 5, 2011, to consider Upper Cook Inlet Finfish proposals. The deadline for written comments on proposals is Feb. 4, 2011. Proposal books are available at Fish and Game offices, or on-line (www.boards.adfg.state.ak.us/fishinfo/index.php).
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Les Palmer lives in Sterling.
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