Even though Kenai River king salmon anglers have stowed their gear for the winter, the future of early-run Kenai River king salmon fishing remains on the minds of many. Concerned individuals will have another chance to become part of the early-run solution.
What is the problem? Simply put, the demand for king salmon on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers exceeds the supply. The Alaska Board of Fisheries, in response to several public proposals, changed the Kenai River Early Run King Salmon Management Plan at its February meeting.
After considerable discussion, the board modified this plan to allow for harvest of smaller kings prior to June 11 and allow for catch-and-release fishing with bait from June 11 through June 30, while also allowing for a harvest of trophy kings larger than 55 inches during the entire early run. Board members felt this approach provided adequate spawning and helped to provide stable and predictable fishing, in a fishery that has seen recent closures and restrictions.
In June, the board voted to delay the start of catch-and-release-only provisions until April 15, 2003, due to controversy surrounding the new rule. The board also agreed to reconsider management options for the Kenai River early-run fishery at its March 2003 meeting. Because management of Kenai fisheries often has an impact on the nearby Kasilof River, the board will also reconsider Kasilof early-run king fisheries next March.
When the board revisits these fisheries next March it will be faced with many of the same issues it encountered in 2002. As always, the challenge will be to balance diverse social desires with important biological concerns. Biological concerns include potential genetic impacts from the selective harvest of "large" fish, potential effects on run timing and potential changes in the distribution of fish in spawning areas. Social concerns include the desire to harvest fish for consumption, and the de-sire for de-pendable opportunity through catch-and-release fishing.
As mentioned above, the nearby Kasilof River king salmon runs must also be considered, since displaced anglers from the Kenai may move to the Kasilof River.
In considering a solution to early-run issues, the board will follow Alaska's sustainable salmon fisheries policy. This policy requires managers to use a "precautionary approach" to assure the sustainability of Alaska's salmon resources.
What does a "precautionary approach" mean? In this case, it simply means controlling harvest until the number of kings returning to spawn can be determined. It also means protecting the larger and older kings so they can produce the big fish that make the Kenai River unique and famous. It also means in-season management adjustments will be made to keep spawning escapements above the minimum required and to sustain the natural variation in run size and run timing.
The board can only meet these biological and social goals with the help of the public, and the department. The role of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is to provide the board and the public the best biological and social information possible. Toward this goal, we will prepare and distribute Kenai and Kasilof River early-run king salmon biological assessment reports detailing biological concerns with these fisheries.
In addition, the Department of Fish and Game has contracted for survey work with one of the best natural resource research firms in the country. The contractor will work with the public to help us identify the major social and economic issues and possible regulatory solutions. To identify issues and possible regulatory actions, they will convene focus groups, hold public meetings and solicit written comment. In order to better understand angler preferences, the issues and solutions identified will be included in an opinion survey that will be sent out this fall to a sample of past, current and potential Kenai River king salmon anglers.
Results of the survey will be widely distributed early in 2003. At that time, local Fish and Game Advisory Committees will provide the interested public an opportunity to discuss biological issues, survey results and Kenai-Kasilof king salmon fishery management issues. In advisory committee meetings, individuals not only can raise concerns, but also can work toward solutions, and bring those solutions to the Board of Fisheries prior to its March meeting.
This winter, you can help craft a plan for the Kenai fisheries by attending a public meeting or advisory committee meeting. Meetings are often held in the evening, in many communities across Alaska. Go to www.state.ak.us/adfg and click on "Boards Support" for more information on how to be involved.
Many individuals have a stake in these publicly owned fishery resources, from anglers to business owners to fish biologists. The challenge facing every one of us is to work together to find the management approach that will do the best job of sustaining the runs and satisfying the public. We look forward to working with you toward an acceptable management plan for these unique and highly prized salmon.
Kelly Hepler is the director and Robert Clark is the Southcentral regional supervisor of the Sport Fish Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Both are based in Anchorage.
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