Mark Duda caught a king-sized amount of opinion Tuesday evening at the Kenai River Center.
Duda is executive director of Responsive Management, a Virginia-based firm contracted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to study the issue of early-run king salmon on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. He holds a master's degree from Yale University in natural resource planning and policy and has more than 20 years of experience in the field of analyzing wildlife issues.
"This is all we do for a living," Duda told a diverse group of approximately 70 people, including fishing guides, property owners, commercial fishers and sport fishers.
Tuesday evening he mediated a public meeting designed to allow area residents to voice their concerns on the issue.
The comments will be part of a report Responsive Management will present to the Alaska Board of Fisheries for use at its March 2003 meeting. The comments also will be used to help formulate a survey intended to help quantify the feelings of river user groups and area residents. The results of the survey will be included in the final report submitted to the board.
The subject of Kenai and Kasilof early-run king salmon has been a contentious one since the board passed a regulation in February that said anglers had to release any Kenai kings measuring between 40 inches and 55 inches caught between Jan. 1 and June 15, as well as all kings measuring less than 55 inches caught between June 15 and June 30.
At the time, the board said it needed to protect large king salmon, as well as provide a "stable and predictable" early-run fishery on the Kenai.
Following a summer that saw a closure of the Kenai in June for biological reasons, overcrowding on the Kasilof and animosity between various river user groups, the board decided to reexamine the issue at its March 2003 meeting.
Duda said Tuesday's meeting was not designed to solve any problems people might have with any specific regulations, only to gauge the public's views on the issue.
"I want you to tell me what you think," Duda said at the meeting's onset. "I do want everybody who has something to say to say it."
Meeting participants weren't shy about taking up Duda's offer.
Among the most talked-about issues raised were the proliferation of guides working on the rivers, people's feelings toward catch-and-release in general, perceptions about the Board of Fish's public process, the best way to protect large king salmon and the availability of biological data regarding the salmon stocks.
Retired biologist Ken Tarbox of Kenai was the first to speak. He said he believes the problem lies with the board's failure to listen and take into account all information when making decisions that affect the peninsula.
"What's happened in this process is we got out of whack," Tarbox said. "We have to clean up the process."
Others at the meeting also criticized the board's apparent failure to listen to the concerns of residents and local Fish and Game advisory committees.
"The Board of Fish has no business meeting in Anchorage," said Soldotna guide Victoria Whitney. "They need to spend their time down here regarding this fishery."
On the issue of catch-and-release, opinions varied on whether it was a good idea or not. However, most people attending seemed to think there are better ways to protect the Kenai's big kings.
Ideas ranged from closing sections of the river all together to enhancing the fishery through aquaculture to limiting the number of fishing guides.
Soldotna guide Rod Berg said he'd favor closing much of the river until early-run kings have had a chance to spawn.
"We've got to get off those June stocks in the lower river. Why are we worried about these fish if we're just going to turn around and kill 'em (in July)?" Berg asked. "We need to work at building this run up so we don't have to fight over these issues all winter."
Bill Horner of Sterling said he is dismayed that fishing guides seem to be catching most of the Kenai's kings.
"What's happened to the guy that just wants to go fishing?" Horner asked. "I think for local people, the fishery is just not worth bothering with anymore. It's like fishing a combat zone."
However, not everyone agreed fishing guides and tourists should be held responsible for the Kenai's problems.
"Everybody has the same right to fish that river as I do," said Soldotna resident Dale Bondurant.
"Take a look at who's sleeping in your extra bedroom," said Irv Carlisle, of Soldotna, pointing out that tourism plays a big role in the peninsula's economy.
Indeed, many people realized that pressure from all user groups has played a role in the decline of the Kenai fishery.
"There are more people that want to catch a Kenai River king salmon than there are Kenai River king salmon," said Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
KRSA plans to tackle the early-run issue again later this week at a meeting at 2 p.m. Saturday at the Kenai Peninsula Borough Building.
A lack of biological data regarding early-run Kenai kings also was lamented by meeting participants as a problem with actions taken by the Board of Fish.
"The big question in my mind is the basic question of measuring using sonar. We don't know exactly how many fish are coming into this river," said Bill Gavin of Soldotna.
"When are we going to get some biological studies regarding these kings?" Whitney asked.
Despite a variety of opinions on how the river should be managed, everyone seemed to agree that more needs to be done to protect the Kenai's world famous king salmon for future generations.
"The day this river turns into a mediocre fishery, (then) we're no different than any other river," said Kenai resident Joe Ray Skrha.
"It should be habitat number one, resource number two and users number three," said Sam McDowell of Sterling.
"If we don't step aside and say we're going to manage this fishery, in five years there's not going to be a fishery."
By the end of the meeting, most people seemed satisfied that Duda understood their concerns.
Now, it's his job to synthesize those varied comments into something he can present to the Board of Fisheries.
"It's gonna be a pretty big chore for me in the next couple of weeks," he said at the conclusion of the meeting.
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