Rift in River City

An Outdoor View

Posted: Friday, December 26, 2003

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

In 2003, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) and the Kenai River Professional Guide Association (KRPGA) continued to thumb their noses at the public process for making the rules governing Kenai Peninsula fishing.

I don't mean they ignore the entire process, but just one of the most important parts. Both groups have shunned the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee, the 15-member panel of local citizens that advises the boards of fisheries and game. Instead of contributing to this key part of the rule-making process, these groups meet behind closed doors and avoid the public forum.

What's wrong with that?

Money gives these organizations an ability to influence the board that's all out of proportion to numbers. At fish-board meetings, they can afford to pay for meals, hotel rooms and transportation. The ordinary "Joe Fisherman" has neither the will nor the financial ability to go up against them. As a result, the process suffers. At worst, the board can get the idea that these groups represent the greater public.

These groups are proving the old saying "He who owns the gold makes the rules." They "make a living" from the Kenai River. The KRSA has been netting more than $1 million per year with its Kenai Classic king salmon fishing tournament. The members of the KRPGA make all or part of their living by guiding trout and salmon anglers on the Kenai.

What irks me isn't so much that they use their financial clout to lobby the board and camp in hotels for the duration of board meetings. Commercial fishers have done this for years. What's wrong is that they ignore the forum established to air fishing and hunting issues at the grassroots level.

It hasn't always been this way. In the past, guides have participated at advisory committee meetings. So has the KRSA.

If the Kenai-Soldotna advisory committee were still dominated by commercial fishing interests, as it was for years, I could understand the reluctance of the guides and KRSA to participate. But since the election last January, only four commercial fishermen hold seats on the panel -- half as many as before. By any measure, the committee is well balanced.

If anything, sport-fishing interests now hold sway. That hasn't stopped commercial-fishing interests from taking part. The drifters have Roland Maws, the executive director of United Cook Inlet Drift Association. Set-netters have Paul Shadura, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association.

One possible reason these groups are ignoring the advisory committee is the rift that has divided sport-fishing interests in the past few years. The resulting lack of trust is more conducive to a fight than to friendly, forthright communication.

A popular perception is that there are too many guides, and there is frustration that guide numbers haven't been cut or limited. On the guides' part, there is resentment toward anyone who makes what they consider "unreasonable" proposals to limit them and their customers. Regarding KRSA, I can't imagine why they shun the local process. Ricky Gease, who assumes their executive director position on Jan. 1, attended part of the advisory committee meeting earlier this month. Maybe that signaled a change for the better.

This squabbling in the sport-fishing ranks comes at time when anglers should be talking to one another. Proposals for changing regulations for upper Cook Inlet fin fish are being drafted right now, and the deadline for submitting these to the Board of Fisheries is April 9. If the past is any indication, there will be more than 300 proposals, all of which have to be considered.

Between 10 and 20 of these proposals will require careful consideration and deliberation. This should be done in public by the members of the advisory committees. Not that KRSA and KRPGA can't develop their own positions, but they also owe it to the public to participate in the local public forum.

To this observer, at least, the lack of interest by these groups comes across as disrespect for the committee, in particular, and for the community, in general.

I hope the new year sees an effort on the part of the boards of both groups, as well as individuals outside these groups, to close what has become a serious rift in the sport-fishing community.

Happy new year.

On Jan. 14 at 6:30 p.m., the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee meets at the Kenai River Center. This is the annual election meeting. Openings include three commercial-fishing seats, two guide seats, one at-large seat and two alternate seats. Following the election, the committee and public will discuss regulation proposals and other local issues.

Next week: News about bears in 2003 included the serious mauling of Dan Bigley at the Russian River on July 14, and the deaths by mauling of Timothy Treadwell and Amie Huguenard in October on the Alaska Peninsula. Did we learn anything from these incidents? Will our activities be regulated to protect the bears?

Les Palmer is a freelance writer who lives in Sterling.

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