What was expected to be the contentious time for Alaskans to fight over Kenai River salmon has yet to arrive, and already a salmon war has erupted south of Anchorage.
At the front this time is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which has decided to start its own state-run commercial fishery. The state agency says it needs cash to pay for test fishing for late-run Kenai sockeye in July, so it's catching 6,000 early-run sockeye and selling them to make money now.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association caught wind of this Tuesday and went almost apocalyptic.
All of the early-run Kenai reds are bound for the Russian River, a clearwater tributary to the glacially silted Kenai. The Russian has long been one of the largest sport fisheries in the state and the biggest summer attraction in the Sterling Highway wide spot of Cooper Landing. The early-run fish bound for the streams have for decades been reserved for anglers with all commercial fishing banned.
Fish and Game is of the opinion its fishery isn't a commercial fishery. The agency says it is merely planning to catch $60,000 worth of fish to sell for "cost recovery." The sport fishing association is of a different view: If you're catching fish and selling them, it's a commercial fishery.
Anglers, meanwhile, say none of that is what really matters anyway.
What matters is that the 6,000 fish caught by Fish and Game are 6,000 fish that won't get to the Russian River, where the early red salmon run has already started out weak. As of Tuesday, fewer than 500 reds had passed the fish counting weir on the clearwater stream about 75 miles upriver from the Kenai's mouth.
Forces were being rallied to protest the state's action on Wednesday.
Kenai Sportfishing sent its members an "action alert" calling the state fishery an "unexpected, unacceptable practice" Fish and Game apparently tried to undertake on the sly.
"No one in the local community was notified about this controversial fishery prior to its execution at 12:01 am, Tuesday, June 15th, the precise moment the Kenai River reopened to retention of early run king salmon," the sportfishing association noted. The unwritten accusation there is that Fish and Game started the fishery in conjunction with the reopening of the Kenai king fishery thinking anglers might be too busy fishing to notice. Obviously, if that was the agency's plan, it didn't work.
The new fishery is getting plenty of attention now, with the Kenai group charging that if the state isn't breaking the letter of the law with its new fishery, it's surely violating the intent of the law:
The bottom line is that it appears ADF&G has been and is allowing a cost recovery program to be operated by an independent contractor, with little or no oversight and with little or no apparent regard for well established Upper Cook Inlet salmon management plans developed through the BOF (Board of Fisheries) public process over many years.
Since 1974, as outlined in the Russian River Sockeye Salmon Management Plan (5 AAC 57.150), the Russian River early run sockeye stocks have been managed as primarily a sport fishery, without directed harvest from any commercial fishery.
the Kenai River early run King Salmon Management Plan (5 AAC 57.160) states that the department shall manage the Kenai River early run king salmon primarily for sport and guided sport fisheries to achieve the optimal escapement goal. With set nets in the water near the mouth of the Kenai River throughout this week, for long hours unattended, incidental catch of Kenai River early run king salmon is unavoidable just as it is during other commercial set net openings.
And yet to come are the expected problems surrounding second-run Kenai River sockeye salmon in July.
Those fish are the primary target of Cook Inlet commercial fisheries and a now huge attraction for a personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai. The run is forecast to be weak.
Fish and Game is under orders from the state Board of Fish to maximize the commercial catch of reds. That could lead to restrictions on the dipnet fishery or an early closure, which could set off an even bigger firestorm than that which now appears to be brewing.
Not to mention the political fallout if Fish and Game doesn't get enough salmon into the Kenai River in July to support the popular sport fishery there. That fishery, along with the companion fishery for late-run Kenai kings, pumps most of the cash into the Kenai and Soldotna tourism economy.
Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.