Subsistence board is fishing for trouble

Posted: Sunday, November 19, 2006

The Federal Subsistence Board is out to make combat fishing on the Kenai River even more contentious.

The board on Friday granted Ninilchik residents a “customary and traditional” subsistence use designation on the upper Kenai River and surrounding watershed — including the Russian and Swanson rivers, Kenai and Skilak lakes and their tributaries — meaning they get subsistence fishing preference in those waters. It won’t be decided until spring how that preference will play out — whether by in-river gillnets, as the Ninilchik Traditional Council suggests, or some other method.

For those scratching their heads on this ones, let’s point out the obvious:

· Ninilchik is about 80 road miles away from the upper Kenai.

· The Kenai is one of the most popular and productive fisheries in state. It’s also no easy feat to manage. Fisheries resource allocation is already a near-nightmare to balance, with private sportfishermen and sportfishing guides, commercial fishermen, personal-use netters and Kenaitze Native users all vying for the same resource, with most crying foul at one point or another that some competing group is getting an unfairly big share. Complicating matters is the effects boat motor pollution, bank erosion and the other results of years of heavy use can have on the health of the river and its salmon stocks. Every decision that affects the Kenai watershed should be made with the utmost care, be backed by solid science and always put the health of the fish runs first.

Yet the board allowed a new fishing interest into the mix, ignoring the objections of the state and Fish and Game, and the concerns of current fishery users.

Survey data collected by Fish and Game shows 28 percent of Ninilchik residents report fishing the upper Kenai area at some point in their life. Of those 28 percent, only 13 percent said they’d fished in that area every or almost every year and 4 percent said they only used the area intermittently — which could mean only once in their lifetime. However, when a sampling of Ninilchik residents were asked if they had fished in the upper Kenai River area in that year, only 7 percent said they had.

It would take a flying leap of logic to think these numbers support the claim that the upper Kenai is or has ever been a common stomping ground for Ninilchik fishermen.

Even if the higher number is a fair representation of Ninilchik’s population that regularly uses the upper Kenai area to fish —which it’s clearly not — 28 percent of a village population fishing in an area once a year at most hardly constitutes significant customary use. Certainly not to a level that’s worth risking the delicate balancing act that goes into managing the Kenai.

After all, what central peninsula homesteader couldn’t claim similar, if not greater, use of the upper Kenai?

The board argues that what really matters is Ninilchik residents did regularly catch upper Kenai-bound fish while they were farther down the Kenai watershed or still in Cook Inlet. The argument is the use of the resource is what’s important, not where Ninilchik residents harvested it.

If that’s the case, then why allow them preference on the upper Kenai? Why not allow them greater access to returning Kenai runs in areas more in line with their traditional fishing grounds?

Rural subsistence rights do need to be protected, but there’s a way to do it in this case that doesn’t involve dumping nets in the upper Kenai River or in any way further muddying already turbulent regulatory waters. The Kenai River is too precious and delicate a resource to be treated so lightly.

The Federal Subsistence Board’s decision is fishing for trouble.

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