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Penning some revisionist history about Kenai king salmon

Craig Medred

Let us all hope that the scholarship of Emilie Springer, in her doctoral studies of the culture and policy of state fisheries, is better than her research into the history of Kenai River salmon, because the woman posing behind the imprimatur of the National Science Foundation has a seriously flawed perspective on how that river came to be one of the most carefully monitored streams in the state.

Here is what Springer wrote in the Homer News last week:

"What we can all agree on is promoting sustainable salmon and trying to provide suitable portions to all interested parties in a way that demonstrates true use patterns of what the fish means. If the fish caught is truly for a sport trophy -- that is not an example of subsistence or necessary personal use. That activity is merely acquisitive and does nothing to help the interest toward species preservation and habitat protection.

"The factor of amusement and diversion in sport activity should not be considered a critical component and those who engage in it should not be considered an essential user group within modifications under consideration for necessary king salmon policy adjustments."

What she clearly doesn't understand is that it was the "sport trophy" fish, the world-famous Kenai king salmon, and the people who fish them, that did more than anyone or anything to preserve and protect Kenai habitat. The Kenai River Special Management Area was created as a 105-mile long unit of Alaska State Parks in 1984 by the Alaska Legislature to maintain riverine habitat. 

And the people who fish for "amusement and diversion" did more than others to support creation of this special management area. The special management area has since influenced habitat protection throughout the vast Kenai drainage. 

Sportfishing association gains stature

Some amount of credit, of course, must go to a former newspaper reporter named Ronnie Chappell, who in the 1980s manned the Kenai office of the Anchorage Daily News, and to that newspaper as well, which at one time was fearless in its resolve to tackle important public policy issues. 

Chappell's reporting on the threats facing the river, the habitat deterioration already underway, and the dangers posed to the river's world-record-size king salmon mobilized the people who fish for "amusement and diversion" into action. The rest is history.

After the special management area came the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which became a leader in lobbying for, designing and sometimes building stream-bank protection. And it became a big-dog political player in a war waged between Kenai commercial, subsistence and sport fishermen for decades.

The Kenai is Alaska's Vietnam. We have been bogged down in battle there for a long, long time, and there is no end in sight.

Never enough fish

Who gets to catch salmon bound for or in the Kenai is a contentious issue. Commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, subsistence fishermen and personal-use fishermen all want more. There are, quite simply, never enough salmon to go around, no matter how many million return, so there are always battles over who gets what.

The battle heated up this year when the Kenai sportfishing association convinced the Alaska Legislature to block one of Gov. Sean Parnell's appointments to the Board of Fisheries, which sets fishing policy for the entire state. The Legislature nixed the reappointment of commercial fisherman Vince Webster from King Salmon. There has been much discussion as to why.

Some believe Webster was the scapegoat who took the hit for the Board deciding to reduce the so-called "escapement goal" for Kenai king salmon. The number of kings that escape the nets of commercial fishermen and the hooks of anglers to make it to their spawning grounds is key to how many kings come back in future years. In general, the more that escape to spawn the more that come back -- though it's not nearly that simple. 

Ocean survival plays a bigger roll than anything in the final return, and ocean survival of late has not been great. There is a biological argument to be made that putting a lot of kings on the spawning beds to produce a lot of young fish that eventually swim to sea only to disappear might not be the best idea. There is an even-better argument to be made that if the ocean-survival loss is occurring in the near-shore marine environment because of competition for food when young fish first hit the sea, it might be a better idea to have fewer young fish competing for food in those first vital months of their transition from freshwater to saltwater.

Economics rather than biology

But the new Kenai king escapement goal wasn't so much based on biology as economics. Nobody really knows much about what happens to the young fish in the marine environment, whereas a whole lot is known about what happens to the adult fish that come back.  There is a careful accounting of these fish, and the accounting shows hundreds of them showing up dead in the nets of commercial setnetters trying to catch the annual bounty of Kenai red salmon.

For decades, there has been a debate about how to reduce this incidental catch of kings. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has steadfastly refused to accept the idea anything can be done and has thus ignored requests to study different fishing technologies and strategies that might minimize or eliminate the incidental catch of kings. Instead, the agency has simply cut down on the time setnetters were allowed to fish in years of weak king runs to allow more kings a chance to get into the Kenai and spawn.

All of this hit an ugly low point last summer when the king run came back unusually weak. They lost hundreds of thousands of dollars in income. A lot had to go looking for extra jobs outside of commercial fishing to survive.

Where Webster went wrong

In the wake of the dismal king return and the disaster in the setnet fishery, the state established a Cook Inlet King Salmon Task Force to look at how to mediate between all the interests fighting over the fish. Some in the sport-fishing community firmly believed the task force was headed toward a serious discussion of new ideas for eliminating incidental king salmon catches in the set net fisheries.

Maybe some experiments with different kinds of nets that would hold reds but allow kings to break free. Maybe a study of which sites catch the most kings and on what tides with an eye toward changing fishing hours or maybe even buying out some fishing sites that catch disproportionate numbers of kings.

Some thought they were making progress toward a whole new look at how to manage the Cook Inlet fisheries. That, of course, never came to pass. Instead, the decision was made to reduce the escapement goal for kings, which should allow the setnetters to fish next summer, much as they have in summers past. They will again catch kings, but with the new escapement number lower they will not be catching enough -- or so Fish and Game believes -- to force biologists to close the fishery to ensure the escapement goal is met.

Some in the sport fishing community believe this decision came about in large part because Webster was working behind the scenes to sabotage any new approach even as he was suggesting otherwise as the co-chair of the task force. Webster denies it. The truth will never be known. This is the classic "he-said, she-said" as they call it in journalism.

All that is clear is that Webster is gone, but the battle remains.

New player in the game

Springer has now bowed in as a new player in the game touting significant credentials as a "PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and ... a member of the National Science Foundation's Resilience and Adaptation Program."

And here is how she sees the Kenai:

"Other than the role of income, the history and culture of commercial fisheries also are considerable features to sustain. The Kenai Peninsula has seen a tremendous history of canneries and buying stations since well before Alaska statehood. I believe that salmon are just as important to a sense of identity here as cod was to the big port towns on the East Coast. In those harbors, the memory of cod runs through the veins. Think of the whale ships there. That was culture. It will never be forgotten. Huge museums are built to demonstrate this. The love of boat designs remains. 

"We reflect that here on the Kenai Peninsula. Yes, sport fishing is relevant, but it’s not the face of the peninsula. It’s not the heart of what we want to sustain and keep resilient in the industry."

It is hard to reconcile those statements with the reality of the modern Kenai in the summer. It is a place that comes alive with tens of thousands chasing red salmon on the Russian River, a key Kenai tributary, for 100 miles downstream to the river mouth, where personal-use dipnetters mob the shores to try to scoop out a winter supply of salmon to put in the freezer.

The Kenai these days hums not with the activity of the few hundred people who hold coveted, commercial fishing permits but with the energy of the tens of thousands who come to fish for themselves. 

Springer is right in that the area does have a "tremendous history of canneries and buying stations since well before Alaska statehood." But she ignores some of that history. Those canneries and buying stations, largely controlled by Outside interests, were one of the big reasons Alaska became a state. Alaskans wanted to wrest the management of fisheries out of the hands of federal bureaucrats who Alaskans believed to favor Seattle interests.

Alaskans wanted to spread the fish among the masses rather than consolidate the fish in the hands of the elite. The Kenai was like those East Coast cod towns as Barrow was like the East Coast whaling ports. The whalers came north to kill whales off the shores of Barrow, and then they went home to spend the winter. The commercial salmon fishermen came north to kill salmon, and then they went home to spend the winter.

A goodly number of them still do. The state's limited entry law sort of encourages them to do so. Alaska voters in 1972, with salmon runs depressed across the state, amended the Alaska Constitution to allow for a law limiting the number of people who would be allowed to fish commercially "to prevent economic distress among fishermen."

Essentially, the voters of the state decided that they wanted commercial fishermen to be able to make a year's living in a few months. It wasn't a bad idea in 1972. The state didn't have much of an economy. If a fisherman didn't catch enough over the summer season to support himself through the winter, there wasn't much choice but to leave the state to find work, because there wasn't much here.

A lot has changed in the more than four decades since. There are now plenty of jobs in Alaska, at least in urban Alaska. The state’s unemployment rate fell to 6.2 percent in March, lower than the nationwide rate.

And no one ever realized how profitable some Alaska salmon fisheries would become. Now, in some of those fisheries, fishermen can make a comfortable year's living in a few months, and if one makes a comfortable living in a few months, why stay in Alaska for the winter? 

Air travel in this country is cheap, easy and convenient, and the cost of living Outside remains lower than in Alaska. Why not fly south and spend the winter somewhere warmer if you don't need to work for nine months? 

Many commercial fishermen now do. About a quarter of the commercial fishing permits are now held by non-residents. They are, of course, not alone. A fair number of Kenai sportfishing guides come north only to work for the summer.

The reality is that no one holds the high moral ground on residency. But you'd never know it from Springer's take on things. One would truly hope for more from someone who trumpets her associations with the National Science Foundation.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com