2003 in retrospect

An Outdoor View

Posted: Friday, December 19, 2003

This is the first of three columns about significant outdoor-related developments of 2003. LP

Among the more important events of 2003, the March meeting of the Board of Fisheries stands out. At that meeting, board members pretty much trashed a management plan for Kenai River early-run king salmon that they had adopted only 13 months before.

In February 2002, the board had set a precedent. It replaced a fishery that always had been managed for food with one managed mainly for fun. Ostensibly, this action was to provide protection for the larger kings and to provide a more stable and predictable fishery. However, it also represented a giant leap toward non-consumptive use of a salmon fishery that for years had provided anglers with an annual harvest of upwards of 6,000 kings. The new regulations, which relied heavily on catch-and-release as a management tool, allowed only about one-sixth of that harvest.

Politics played a large part in that board action, and the Department of Fish and Game was part of it. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association lobbied hard for an all catch-and-release fishery on the early-run kings. Under pressure from all sides to do something, the board acted in haste, without taking time to consider how anyone other than those two organizations felt about such a radical change.

Never one to sit quietly while young upstarts mess with my destiny, I picked up the flag of Consumptive Use. I feared "my side" was in for a bitter fight, and I was right. In my Mar. 7, 2003 column, I wrote: "As a result of what happened at that (February 2002 fish-board) meeting, my community became and remains sharply divided. I went to war against KRSA and Kenai River guides, people I had for years helped and boosted. My longtime close relationship with the Department of Fish and Game has become uneasy and distrustful."

When anglers became informed of the new plan and realized its ramifications, they were outraged. By meetings, phone calls, letters and e-mails, the furor grew and spread.

To their credit, the Board of Fisheries and the Department of Fish and Game responded. The board agreed to reconsider the plan in March of this year. Fish and Game paid $40,000 to Virginia-based RM Consultants to hold public meetings and conduct a survey that would measure public responses to options for managing the early-run kings.

In my column of Feb. 28, 2003, I wrote, "These (survey) responses indicate what most of us already knew: Most salmon anglers prefer to fish when there is at least a possibility of being able to harvest a salmon. The vast majority of people who say they fish for kings in the Kenai and Kasilof for 'sport' or 'recreation' don't fish when there is no possibility of taking home a fish. They know unpredictability is part of the deal, and they accept it, albeit not without whining."

At the March 2003 meeting, the board adopted a new management plan, meant to protect the large early-run Kenai kings while allowing a reasonable harvest about 75 percent of the average harvest of past years. During the board deliberations, no member of the board or Fish and Game staff so much as casually commented that the board action meant reverting back from trophy management to consumptive-use management. That such a significant rock could be dropped in the pond without a ripple of comment astounded me.

After the board meeting, in my Mar. 28 column, I wrote of the lack of candor by those guilty of "driving the regulatory bus off the cliff last year." The silence bothered me. I sat through every minute of the board meeting, but heard not one word of acknowledgment that anyone had erred, let alone royally disabused the process.

There was ample opportunity in the public testimony portion of the meeting to say, "Hey, we screwed up and we're sorry," but no one availed themselves of it. A simple acknowledgment, a "We seem to have gotten ahead of ourselves," would have helped clear the air. But no such admission was forthcoming. "No word of humility, let alone contriteness, was uttered," I wrote. "Instead, we heard how ignorant the public was for wanting an equal share of the harvest of early-run kings, and how important the sport-fishing industry was to the economy."

As I write this, I realize with sadness that little has changed. Prior to the 2003 board meeting, only the Kenai River guide organization publicly reversed its position on "mandatory" catch-and-release. In a Letter to the Editor (Clarion, Jan. 5, 2003), the group said its membership "regrets the confusion stemming from the 2002 Board of fisheries meeting."

To my knowledge, no one from Kenai River Sportfishing Association, no one from the Department of Fish and Game, and no member of the Board of Fisheries has ever admitted that a gross inequity or even a simple mistake ever occurred. No one has apologized to our community for having caused so much trouble and heartache.

In the absence of such an admission or apology, one can't help but wonder if they would do the same thing again, given half a chance.

Next week: Long dominated by commercial-fishing interests, the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee undergoes drastic change, but continues to be shunned by groups with their own agendas.

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Les Palmer is a freelance writer who lives in Sterling.



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