The Kenai Peninsula salmon season that was so good for commercial fishermen and not so good for the masses appears to be working its way to an ugly end.
On Monday, one day after the extremely popular dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River closed for the season, an Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar tallied a flood of 52,674 sockeye into the river.
It was the biggest daily return of the year, but there were no dipnetters on the beach to take advantage. The season has closed a day earlier.
Asked to extend it, Fish and Game refused, arguing that the incidental catch of coho salmon starts to increase in August and that some dipnetters would not be able to fish because they had already returned their permits with the end of the season on July 31.
On the day after the dipnet fishery closed, the commercial fishery reported the harvest of 5,300 coho and another 80,824 sockeye bringing the season’s sockeye catch to more than 2.1 million.
They also reported the catch of a few hundred Chinook to bring their season total to more than 6,500. In a historical sense that isn’t much, but coming as it did on the day the Alaska Department of Fish and Game confessed to a significant boo-boo, it didn’t look good.
Good king run not so good
Fish and Game on Aug. 1 revealed the promised return of 22,500 late-run Kenai Chinook – the big kings – would not be materialize. This after biologists spent most of July trumpeting how good things looked.
“A dreary Chinook run has plagued the Kenai River for the past few years, but numbers for 2015 shine a somewhat bright light on the state’s most heavily fished river and most iconic species,” reporter DJ Summers of the Alaska Journal of Commerce wrote on July 22 after talking to state officials.
The “bright light” is that the run isn’t the disaster of 2014 when the minimum escapement goal of 15,000 was barely met, but it looks like it is going to end up worse than the mediocre 23,705 return of last summer.
All of this and more – the fabled Russian River sockeye salmon run which should at the moment be building toward an early August peak is just stumbling along – is playing out in the lead up to a winter meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries where Cook Inlet salmon management is again on the agenda.
Historically, anglers have sometimes made noise at these meetings, but commercial fishing interests have almost always carried the day. General Alaskan frustration at board decisions to weight allocation heavily toward commercial fishing led 43,000 Alaskans to sign a petition to put an initiative on the ballot which would have allowed a vote on whether to ban set gillnets in urban areas of Alaska, including the Kenai Peninsula, this year.
Set gillnets are one of four major types of gear used to commercially harvest salmon in the 49th state. The initiative was challenged as an unconstitutional allocation of a public resource to non-commercial fishermen, and the state Supreme Court agreed thus creating a perfect Catch 22:
An underclass majority unable to obtain what it thought an adequate allocation in a process dominated by the monied-class was denied the opportunity for a public vote to change the system because that could create to an allocation.
Social media fish war
What happens next remains to be seen, but Gary Barnes, a cranky old fisherman in Soldotna, has been working hard to create a social media firestorm. Barnes used to run an online forum at AlaskaOutdoorJournal.com, but shut it down and moved the Journal onto Facebook.
He now has 10,000 followers there, and he has been doing his best to fire them up.
“Major changes are in order for the way both of these URBAN SOCKEYE RUNS are managed for the present day user groups numbering in the HALF MILLION Alaskans and visitors each year,” he posted Tuesday “The Board of Fish process is a democratic process DESIGNED to allow the PUBLIC to participate in regulatory changes….IF they participate. This will be our year to make our presence FELT and our voices HEARD, in writing, in petition signatures, in electronic comments and in our own testimony. KEEP YOUR TORCHES BURNING AND YOUR PITCH FORKS AT ARMS LENGTH!”
Whether anyone responds won’t really be known until winter.
Commercial fishermen say they find the use of social media interesting, but not particularly worrisome. Dipnetter and angler interest in fishing, they note, ends almost as soon as the fishing ends and doesn’t pick up again until the fishing is due to resume.
If Barnes can get people to pick up torches and pitchforks when the salmon fishing is non-existent because the rivers in Alaska are all frozen, it will be a first.