The Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Natural Resources will soon be making a decision with respect to a proposal to raise the horsepower limit on the Kenai River from 35 HP to 50 HP. The proposal is in large part a response to bank erosion caused by the increasing number and size of boats operating on the lower river, particularly during the July late-run king salmon season. It appears that this proposal is on the fast track to approval. This despite a poll taken by the Peninsula Clarion earlier this year that resulted in 62 percent of 721 respondents opposed to this proposal (such polls are often skewed since proponents with vested interests and thus in support would be more likely to respond). This despite the fact that the results of a wake study conducted in 2005 at tax-payer’s expense and designed to fully address the issue of impacts of boat wakes (to include make, size and hull design; number of passengers; speed and proximity to the shoreline) are not yet available. This despite the fact the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation believes that increasing the limit to 50 HP will increase hydrocarbon pollution which every July already exceeds state water quality standards.
The lower river has unfortunately become a circus in July with increasing concerns about boating safety. Allowing 50 HP motors on the heavier boats such as the Willie Predator, the most popular boat among Kenai River guides because of the comfort they provide, will increase the speed of such boats by 25 percent. Keeping such boats up on step at these speeds under typical crowded conditions will jeopardize the safety of everyone on the river to say nothing of the added noise and further deterioration of the overall angler experience.
It is inappropriate to address impacts such as bank erosion and elevated hydrocarbon emissions without addressing the real problem, that of the burgeoning number of guides operating on the lower river. Guides provide a valuable public service and have a rightful place in any management program. But the situation is out of control and has been for some time. Managers have failed, completely failed, to deal with it.
The 1992 Kenai River Carrying Capacity Study conducted by the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation refers to an “emerging guided/nonguided conflict” and states that 73 percent of users and 80 percent of landowners supported limiting the number of guides. That was fourteen years ago! There were 275 guide permits issued that year. This year there were 437 guide permits issued a 60 percent increase! This report further states that “guided use rarely made up more than one-third of the boating use on the lower river.” This year’s July boat counts indicated that 49 percent were guide boats (it is important to note that these counts included counts taken after 6 p.m. and on Sundays when guides are not allowed to fish there are many times and places when the percentage probably approaches or exceeds 90 percent).
The public seems to believe that government agencies prefer to study problems rather act on them. That certainly seems to be the case here. The 1992 study was not enough. In 2003, a report was prepared by a firm in Virginia on behalf of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game entitled “Pubic Opinion on Management Options for Recreational Fishing of Early Run King Salmon on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers” (the title of the report portends its length it’s 531 pages). In this study, 67 percent of local anglers, 57 percent of non-local anglers, and 56 percent of businesses felt that “too many guides” was the top-ranked problem. And this is for the June early run which supports only one-quarter of the angling effort of the July late run. Not to be outdone, in 2004 the Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation embarked on yet another study by distributing questionnaires to river users asking about their positions on river issues. These questionnaires are in a cardboard box waiting to be analyzed. Clearly, it’s way past time to stop studying and do something!
More and more of my friends and neighbors say they no longer fish the lower river because of the congestion and commotion. They just don’t enjoy it anymore. This is supported by Alaska Department of Fish and Game angler effort data. These data show non-guided use on the lower river in July has fallen dramatically from between 200,000 and 250,000 angler hours annually in 1993, 1994, and 1995 to between 125,000 and 140,000 angler hours annually in the last three years.
This represents an alarming 44 percent decline in non-guided effort over the last decade! There is little doubt that if 50 HP motors are allowed this decline will continue.
If you want to weigh in on the 50 HP issue, I urge you to submit your comments at http://www.dnr.state.ak.us/parks/ krsma/krsmaindex.htm or mail them to Superintendent, Alaska State Parks, Kenai Area, P.O. Box 1247, Soldotna, AK 99669. Don’t delay because, as I’ve stated, this seems to be on the fast track!
Dick Marshall is a retired fisheries biologist formerly employed by U.S. Fish and Wildlife in Alaska. He lives in Kenai.
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