When Les Anderson caught the world record king salmon in 1985, he put the town once popularly known as Slowdotna on the map. Anderson landed the fish near The Pillars, a fishing spot inside the Kenai city limits, but he lived in Soldotna, so Soldotna grabbed the credit. The city put a king salmon on its logo, and its chamber of commerce began hyping the town as "Home of the World Record King Salmon." From less than 200 in 1985, Kenai River guide numbers more than doubled. Soldotna, at least for a month or two each summer, bustled.
Seeing all this activity, the Kenai business community wanted a piece of the Kenai River action. The city's fish-processing plants were closing down. The much ballyhooed Kenai River Flats wildlife viewing area, first proposed in 1987, failed to attract flocks of tourists. Most new lodges were built upstream of Kenai, where riverfront land was higher, dryer and more suitable for development.
Then, in 1996, the Alaska Board of Fisheries adopted regulations that changed the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai to its present form, a July 10-31 season. The new fishery proved wildly popular, growing from about 15,000 permits issued in 1996 to about 24,000 in 2008. This year, so many people wanted permits that vendors ran out, forcing the Department of Fish and Game to print more.
But if you think everyone is happy, you're wrong.
Instead of seeing the dipnet fishery as a golden goose, some Kenai denizens see it as a goose of a different kind.
"We didn't ask for this fishery it was forced on us," said Kenai city councilman Joe Moore (Clarion, Oct. 25).
"The state was irresponsible when it created this fishery," said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch (Clarion, Oct. 25).
For 2009, Kenai's revenues from parking, camping and boat launching totaled nearly $255,000, an 18 percent increase over 2008 revenues. After expenses, Kenai cleared $43,000, a fair return for an event that lasts only three weeks. But not fair enough, says Koch, who is recommending that parking rates be increased to $20 for the 2010 season, from the present $15 for 12 hours.
Commercial fishermen, who think of the late-run Kenai River sockeyes as their own, see the uncontrolled growth of the dipnet fishery as a real threat. Before 1996, the commercial "share" of the late-run Kenai River sockeye harvest almost always was more than 90 percent of the total. Since 1996, it has never exceeded 90 percent.
During this year's dismal sockeye return, commercial-fishing closures forced commercial fishermen from the water while dipnetters kept right on fishing. Of course, this is because the commercial effort can catch more fish in one opening than the dipnetting effort can catch in its three-week season. The current sockeye management plan doesn't close dipnetting unless the sockeye return is even worse than it was this year.
Others despise the dipnetting. Commenting on the Clarion's Website, "Kenai-king" wrote: "This fishery needs to go away. It's not even safe to go to town when this fishery is on. Our hwy's are not safe and these people are nuts and have the attitude of get out of my way. I have been here since the begining of this fishery and most of us didn't like it then and still don't."
Upstream anglers consider dipnetters to be just one more competitor for a finite number of fish, and they're right. From 2001 to 2007, sport harvests ranged from 173,000 to 309,000, and dipnet harvests ranged from 128,000 to 295,000.
But there's a side of this story that isn't getting out, and it's this: By most accounts, the Kenai River dipnet fishery is a great success.
Yes, there have been problems, as there are with any large event. But most of the "growing pains" are past, and the problems are solved. People are learning how the fishery works, and are learning to follow the rules and regulations. They're cooperating among themselves. This year's fishery was the smoothest yet, and next year's promises to be even better.
Having fixed most of the past problems with traffic and parking, City of Kenai department managers commented positively in the 2009 "Kenai River Dipnet Fishery" report. Police Chief Gus Sandahl summed up the various city department managers' takes on this year's event: "Overall, the City departments felt the dipnet fishery was successful, with a low number of significant incidents given the thousands of people who participated from around the State of Alaska."
Kenai businesses surely benefit from the dipnetters, about 75 percent of whom are from Anchorage and the Matanuska-Susitna area. Those out-of-towners spend money, and some of it ends up in city and borough tax revenues. The fishery has created new seasonal jobs and small-business opportunities.
Of all those who benefit from the Kenai River dipnet fishery, dipnetting families benefit most of all. It may not be exciting enough for a media news story, but the feeling that comes with gathering your own healthy food is priceless.
Les Palmer lives in Sterling, "Home of a World Record Humpy."
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