There was cautious reaction to the Federal Subsistence Board's Tuesday ruling that rural residents of the state may subsistence fish on portions of the upper Kenai River, in Skilak and Kenai lakes and in the waterways of Lake Clark National Park.
Under the ruling, subsistence fishers must adhere to all the rules, regulations, methods, means, open areas, harvest limits and seasons as sportfishers. That means a fishery using only rod and reel in areas already open to sportfishers.
"Everyone will have to adhere to state regulations," said Office of Subsistence Management spokesperson Richard Davis in Anchorage. "That means you will not see nets or fish wheels."
Subsistence fishers will have to obtain a federal subsistence fishing permit in lieu of a state sportfishing license. There is no fee for the subsistence permit, though it is only good on federal land. A state resident sportfishing license is $15.
On the peninsula, the new subsistence fishery begins at the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge marker on the Kenai River just downstream from Skilak Lake, and extends upstream through Kenai Lake in the Chugach National Forest. It does not include Kenai Fjords National Park.
"There is a misconception that this applies to the entire Kenai Peninsula, but it does not," Davis said. "It's only on federal land."
The species affected include salmon, Dolly Varden and char.
Davis said the first priority for both state and federal fishery managers is conservation of the resource. They diverge when it comes to the second priority, which is the reason for dual management. The state gives second priority to all Alaska user groups, while the federal government gives second priority to subsistence fishers and then to sportfishers and others.
That could create a conflict if the state issues an emergency order closing a certain fishery to sportfishers, where federal managers may not close a subsistence fishery in the same areas.
"The resource should come before the user," said Kenai River Sportfishing Inc. executive director Brett Huber.
He said he did not think the ruling would have much effect on the peninsula this summer, especially if there is a strong sockeye run. But if a poor run caused an emergency sportfishing closure, it would bar a Kenai, Soldotna or other urban resident from sportfishing, though allow a rural resident from elsewhere in the state to come and fish, he said.
"It would allow people from far away to come and fish when locals can't," Huber said. "I think federal managers should have great deference to state managers. They're the ones with the data and the experience."
"One thing to keep in mind is that what we're looking at is the infancy of a subsistence harvest," Davis said. "The board wanted to take it slow and do it right, so nobody goes head-strong and creates problems for the resource.
"Everyone is aware of the stress that is already put on the (Kenai River) fishery, and that's why this is the same as the state, at least initially."
Subsistence fishing advocate Clare Swan, a Kenaitze, said she was surprised at the board's decision.
"I really have to read the order," she said. "There's always the fine print with their definitions."
She said she looks forward to seeing how the fishery would be managed, how it would work and how it would be funded and enforced.
"We all know that in the dipnet fishery we don't just have residents," she said.
Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said there will probably not be much change in how his office treats the area. He said refuge rangers will continue to patrol the area as they always have.
"It isn't like there will be added fishing pressure or reallocation of the resource," he said. "So unless some additional regulations come, it's almost a non-issue."
The regulation came out of a proposal that asked that all finfish and shellfish be open to subsistence harvest year-round, with no bag limit.
"That's an extreme example of what could go wrong," Huber said.
The board deferred other decisions on other fisheries until more studies are done on customary and traditional use. There hasn't been a freshwater subsistence fishery since the 1950s, so data is sparse.
Subsistence users may in the future appeal to the board to allow longer seasons, increased bag limits and permission to use nets.
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