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Overlooked Alaska fishing

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Kasilof River dipnetters/ADF&G photo

What if someone came up with a plan to give dipnetters a sometimes better alternative to the salmon dipnet madness at the mouth of the Kenai River and almost no one seemed to care?

What if the plan improved access to the nearby Kasilof River, where there is a surplus of salmon, while at the same time protecting Cook Inlet dunes and migratory bird habitat being trampled there, and almost no one noticed?

Put the two questions together and you’ve got a pretty good summary of reactions to the state of Alaska’s plans for the Kasilof River Special Use Management Area. Comments on the plan close Monday (March 21), and few are reported to have offered the Alaska Department of Natural Resources an opinion on how much to improve parking and access – or not.

Three of four proposed plans for the area would expand both. The fourth option is aimed more at habitat protection and largely ignores parking.

Ken Frederico, chairman of the Southcentral Alaska Dipnetters Association, doesn’t quite understand the lack of interest. The best of the plans, he said in a text message, would “help out the habitat (and) it will take some pressure off of the Kenai dipnetting area.

“Proposal number 4 has the turnaround and some extra parking and all the monies have been passed through from last year. This is a win/win for the habitat and dippers.”

Others fear Frederico is right about taking some pressure off the Kenai.

“It’s a huge footprint already and with no limit on the growth of the personal-use fisheries — and no provision for overflow parking, and building a 40-foot road to the beach — it will have significant ecological impacts as more people camp, drive on the beach, and drive four-wheelers in the area,” Ken Tarbox, a former commercial fisheries biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and active birder told The Redoubt Reporter in October. “The activity in this area is going to skyrocket, and at a time of year when migrating birds need this critical habitat for feeding and nesting.”

The state “Project FAQ” counters that the area is already heavily used during the dipnet season and that “has created consequences and impacts that are socially unacceptable. This project attempts to bring order to use of the state resources by creating an organized venue for the public to participate in the personal use fisheries while protecting the resources from continued impacts.”

DNR contends it is trying to moderate what has become a common problem in modern-day Alaska — loving lands to death. And in some places, most visibly along the hugely popular Russian River where once trampled riverbanks are now thick with vegetation in the summer,  it been shown wise conservation management works.

The Kasilof raises the question of whether more people and better management trumps fewer people and poor management.

The mouth of the Kasilof now attracts about a third the number of dipnetters as the mouth of the Kenai in large part because of the more convenient access to the latter. What might best be described as something of a salmon Woodstock materializes at the mouth of the Kenai for three weeks every July.

Some now come as much for the event as for the fishing.

The campers, the parties, the fish killing and the rare but unavoidable misbehavior has not always made the city fathers happy, although the parking and camping fees the city collects at the river mouth make the dipnet fishery the only city operation that turns a profit.

For non-Alaskans and non-fishermen reading this, dipnetting is a form of salmon fishing accurately described by its name. Dipnetters  use nets up to five-feet in diameter to dip salmon out of the Kenai, Kasilof, Copper and other Alaska rivers.

Only they don’t always dip. Sometimes they wade along in water chest deep with the net perpendicular to the shore hoping to stumble into a salmon. Sometimes they stand in the water thigh- to chest-deep holding the net perpendicular to the shore hoping a salmon will swim into it.

As inefficient as this fishing technique might sound, it can be deadly effective when spawning salmon swarm the river mouth in schools of 10,000, 20,000 or more. And with a 25-per-household salmon limit or more good for up to 150 pounds of salmon steaks or more, 30,000 to 36,000 dipnetters from all over the region swarm the riverside beaches to meet the ocean’s bounty.

State records indicate a large number of households in the communities of Kenai and Soldotna are dipnetters, or at least they pick up state dipnet permits. Kenai Peninsula dipnetters, however, are outnumbered by the residents of Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the state’s largest bedroom community, who flock south to the Peninsula.

The regularly show up by the church-bus load to dipnet the Kenai. Collectively, these people sometimes catch up to a half-million Kenai red salmon in July. Other times they don’t catch nearly so many. And sometimes they are all at the Kenai when they would be better advised to be at the Kasilof.

The Kasilof red salmon run isn’t as big as the Kenai run, but because of differences in timing between the two runs the Kasilof can at some points during the season provide for much better fishing than is available on the Kenai.

What becomes of access to this resource it now appears could be decided by a few bureaucrats and a handful of interested Alaskans such as Federico and Tarbox. It is that strange disconnect in American participatory democracy where so many decisions get made by so few.

But, if you still want to weigh in, there is time. Call Adam Smith at the Soutcentral Regional Land Office at 269-8557 or email him at: adam.smith@alaska.gov. The public comment period runs through 5 p.m. Monday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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