Decaying salmon along Kenai River creates big stink

Posted: Sunday, October 08, 2000

SOLDOTNA (AP) -- Decaying salmon from this fall's die-off along the Kenai River is causing a big stink around Soldotna.

An estimated 3 million to 6 million pinks have spawned and died, and now their gray, fuzz-covered bodies cobble the river's bed, banks and bars.

The odor of decaying flesh wafts through Soldotna when the winds are right, making the town smell like something that's been left in the fridge too long.

It's even worse along the river, said Chris Meehan, owner of the Kenai River Raven bed and breakfast in Soldotna.

''I'm having difficulty putting the smell into something pleasant that I can write about my place,'' Meehan said. ''You don't even want to open your window. It's very, very bad.''

This year, a combination of a strong pink run and strict fishing regulations to protect the Kenai's silver salmon run created a humpy bonanza.

While the state doesn't have an exact count, an estimated 10 million to 20 million pinks returned to Cook Inlet streams this summer, said Jeff Fox, a commercial fisheries biologist. Their bodies plugged state fish wheels being used to count Kenai silver salmon.

''We've caught 83,000 pinks just to get 3,400 silvers,'' said Jay Carlon, a state fisheries researcher working on that project.

To some, it's just part of life along the Kenai.

''It really is great,'' said Dick Bower Sr., who has spent hours with a pitchfork tossing the carcasses back into the water.

Bower, a former member of the state Board of Fisheries, advocates fertilizing the river with dead fish. On Friday he was sounding a lot like Martha Stewart: ''When I hit 'em with a pitchfork, the flesh breaks out and clouds the water, and that's a good thing, because of the nutrients it's putting in the water.''

Research by the U.S. Forest Service's Pacific Northwest Research Station in Juneau suggests that decomposing salmon play a key role in maintaining a healthy fishery. They promote the growth of algae and bacteria, which feed aquatic insects, which in turn feed juvenile salmon. The carcasses also feed bears, eagles and other animals, and fertilize shore plants that shelter young fish.

But there's no denying the smell. Meehan said her family's just waiting for freeze-up to provide some relief.

''We laugh about paying for this fine riverfront property,'' she said.

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