The winter meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries is months away but already the weirdness has begun. At a work session in Kenai-Soldotna this week, the board spent some time kicking around the idea of motor restrictions for the Kenai River to make the popular, personal-use dipnet fishery there safer.
The suggestion was brought to the board by 72-year-old Soldotna resident George Parks and picked up by the board’s new vice-chair Sue Jeffery, who termed the Kenai a “disorderly, unsafe fishery.”
A commercial fisherman from Kodiak, Jeffery appeared unaware everyone was discussing the wrong fishery. There are deadly dipnet fisheries in Alaska, but the Kenai boat fishery is not one of them.
The short stretch of the Kenai open to dipnetting from boats during the short July dipnet seasons does get congested. Some boats have collided, and a few have even taken on water until they sank. But no one has ever died.
In fact, the many boats plugging the Kenai arguably make the fishing there safer. If something bad happens, there’s always someone nearby to help out.
As reported by the Peninsula Clarion on July 20 of this year, “four people were brought safely to shore after their boat capsized Tuesday near the Kenai City Dock.
“The 18-foot low boat took on water after being hit with a wake, said Kenai Fire Battalion Chief Tony Prior. All four people in the boat were wearing life vests, and none of them had to be taken to the hospital or checked on scene, he said.”
The “low boat” was a probably a “Lowe,” a popular brand of boat in Alaska. The rest of the story rings true with what has generally been the case with the occasional accident in the dipnet boat fishery.
If what Parks and Jeffery are truly concerned about is safety, they were clearly looking in the wrong place because it is shore-based dipnetting that kills people.
Fifty-nine-year-old Jimmy Chun from Anchorage was fishing the north bank of the Kenai in 2004 and lost his footing. The river’s current pushed him downstream toward Cook Inlet. Some dipnetters tried to extend him nets he could grab, but they either couldn’t reach him or he couldn’t hold on.
Chun was eventually washed out into the Inlet. His body was later found there.
He is the only known Kenai dipnetter to die in recent times, but the Kenai is not the state’s only dipnet fishery. There is another on the Copper River to the east of Anchorage and that fishery near the tiny community of Chitina has a deadly reputation.
A half-dozen people were killed while dipnetting at Chitina in the decade from 1990 to 2000, and there have been several since. Twenty-seven-year-old Lance Jorgensen from North Pole appears to have been the last in 2011.
“The dangers of dipnetting at Chitina shouldn’t be downplayed,” the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner headlined after his death.
Jorgensen “was dip netting with his father, Randy, when he slipped on a rock, fell into the water and was swept down the river. Searchers never found his body,” then News-Miner outdoor editor Tim Mowry wrote after the accident. “It’s a tragic and heart-wrenching story. Jorgensen was married with a young daughter.
“The sad thing is Jorgensen isn’t the first Chitina dip-netter to fall into the Copper River and drown, and he probably won’t be the last.”
All sad deaths
About 10 years prior to Jorgensen’s death, a popular assistant principal at Alaska’s West High School and a leader in the Mormon Church died in an accident similar to that which killed Jorgensen.
Aisa “Aumoeualogo was dipnetting in the Cooper River on Wednesday afternoon with his younger brother, Leroy Manumaleuna,” wrote Anchorage Daily News reporter Larry Campbell at the time. “Working the river several hundred yards upriver from his brother, Aumoeualogo evidently lost his footing and was swept down river by the current. He was not wearing a life vest.
“According to Alaska State Troopers, he was last seen by his brother, apparently unconscious, floating down the river. As of Thursday evening, his body had not been found. Neither Manumaleuna nor other fishermen were able to reach Aumoeualogo because of the swiftness of the river.
“‘We’d have more hope if there had been some kicking or acknowledgment that he was conscious when witnesses saw him,’ said State Trooper Sgt. Rodney Dial . ‘But the water’s so silty up there right now. And the locals will tell you that the undertow will just take anything right down.'”
The Copper is more like a slurry pipeline than a river, and that is what makes it so deadly. The bodies of those who perish in the river are seldom found. The Kenai is tame by comparison, though it has killed many people upstream from the dipnet fishery.
They fall into the cold, fast water only to get swept into a snag or under one of the sweepers found in places along the upstream riverbanks, and they die. One really could make an argument that nearly all fishing on the Kenai and Copper rivers should be banned for safety reasons.
And with the Board of Fish set to take up Cook Inlet fisheries near the end of February don’t be surprised if someone does. The easiest way for any group to get a bigger slice of the limited salmon-catch pie is to make sure another group doesn’t fish, or at least cut down on the number of the others fishing.