Board tackles river issues

Posted: Friday, December 12, 2003

The Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee has taken the lead role in trying to figure out how to solve a variety of social, political and biological problems facing the Kenai River.

The committee spent much of Wednesday's four-hour meeting discussing possible ways to restrict the number of fishing guides operating on the river. In addition to the guides discussion, committee members also touched on a wide variety of subjects, ranging from the state's failure to fund phase two of the Kenai River Boat Wake Study to questions about how a local sport fishing organization is using charitable funds.

The meeting began with committee members quizzing Alaska State Parks Superintendent Chris Degernes about the possibility of the state funding both the boat wake study and a proposed carrying capacity study the state says is needed before any guide limits may be imposed.

Degernes told the committee that the parks division is looking at raising commercial operator user fees for next year, but that there has been no indication from the Murkowski administration that any funds will become available for either of the studies.

However, she did say that state parks would be ready to begin a crowding study as soon as next year provided funding is made available.

"If we had the funds now, we could do it in 2004. If it was May, we would have to wait (until 2005)," she said.

She said the boat wake study which will determine how various wakes affect shoreline soils is desperately needed before anyone can understand the effect boats are having on riverbank fish habitat.

"The point is there are an awful lot of ways to interpret the data from the first study," Degernes said.

"Without knowing how this kind of activity affects the bank, it's kind of a leap."

After grilling Degernes on the study issues, the committee returned to the guides discussion, something it spent a great deal of time on at its November meeting.

The two concepts which seemed to dominate Wednesday's discussion were limited entry and drift-only. Committee members were split on the limited entry question, with some saying it would promote a stable, responsible guide industry, while others argued it would be unconstitutional and thus an unrealistic solution to the Kenai's crowding issues.

"I would think that limited entry would ensure the best people get those (guide) permits," said committee vice chair Porter Pollard.

However, others argued that limited entry would be difficult to implement and could open the door to potential unintended consequences.

"You could have a system you don't want," said committee member Ken Tarbox.

Tarbox suggested a more reasonable approach might be to move toward a drift-only fishery, a solution he said would alleviate crowding, eliminate pollution and produce a more enjoyable fishery for everyone involved.

"I think there's a way to deal with the crowding on the river," Tarbox said. "That's a drift fishery."

Committee members also brought up the issue of nonresident guides. Committee member Gary Dawkins said he'd like to see some kind of system in place that would force fishing guides to either live in Alaska or pay a much higher price for the privilege.

"The guides that spend the winter here and drive in this crap deserve something more than the guy down in California laying on the beach," Dawkins said.

Dawkins said that the best solution, however, would be to have the guide industry come up with some way to limit itself, as opposed to being forced into cutting numbers through legislation or regulation.

"I think there would be more winners if they could come up with a plan themselves," Dawkins said.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease attended Wednes-day's meeting. He said the real issue on the river isn't whether guides should be cut, but whether the density of anglers fishing the river has become an issue. Gease said the committee should look at ways to reduce overall densities rather than singling out specific user groups.

"I think you're going to get a lot more traction if you approach the issues on the Kenai River in terms of densities," Gease told the committee.

With that, the discussion again turned to providing for drift-only for the entire river, or at least more areas of the river. Committee members who spoke in favor of a drift fishery said it would allow traffic on the river to flow more freely while reducing conflicts between anglers.

"We could have no parking zones on that river," said committee member Bob Kintzele.

While the committee didn't come up with any solutions Wednesday, members said they believe that talking about guide and crowding issues will eventually help them make better decisions when it comes time to make recommendations to the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

"It's good to have these discussions as a fundamental basis for those proposals," Tarbox said.

In other action Wednesday, the committee:

Discussed the possibility of investigating the Kenai River Classic fishing tournament on the basis that the group which runs the Classic, the Kenai River Sport-fishing Association, uses funds from the derby to fund activities not related to education or habitat restoration.

"Is KRSA using funds generated from a publicly owned resource to subvert the public process?" asked committee member John Nelson.

Although the committee did not take any official action on the issue, several members voiced their concerns that KRSA is using its funds to influence fisheries management. The group's concerns were picked up on by Rep. Kelly Wolf, R-Kenai, who attended the meeting and said he plans to begin an investigation into the group's activities.

Wolf said he agrees that nonprofit organizations can be a threat to the political process. He mentioned the recent opposition to the state's predator management program near McGrath by the group Friends of Animals as one example of a nonprofit group attempting to influence fish and wildlife management.

"Using 501(c)3's to influence management is a very scary tactic," Wolf said.

Voted to send a letter to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game asking for an independent review of chinook counting techniques used on the Kenai. Commercial fishers have argued that current sonar and netting techniques are not producing accurate fish counts.

"In science, independent review is always a good thing," Tarbox said.

Set committee elections for Jan. 14. Eight seats will be up for election, including three commercial seats, two sport fishing seats, one at-large seat and two at-large alternates.

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