Disorderly and unsafe


Alaska dipnetting, more dangerous than it looks/Craig Medred photo

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.

Wrong target

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.





16 replies »

  1. Craig: Is PU harvesting disorderly? Absolutely! Is it unsafe? Yes, it certainly can be. But when the Russian River flipping is done in combat fishing situations the threat to safety runs exponentially higher. Not to mention the sports anglers who put their life on the line trying to retrieve a lure/ fly that costs less than what they buy at Taco Bell. What isn’t unsafe? In Alaska especially.

    As a life-long nature enthusiast, naturalist and conservationist, angler and outdoorsman, what disgusts me is the litter and disregard for our natural areas. PU harvesters, sports anglers and others, absolutely trash our estuaries and river/ creek banks and they couldn’t care less. Critical habitat for salmon and forage fishes, which all (except for sockeye) salmon rely on — the riparian zones in particular — get trampled and trashed by the majority of users. Commercial fishers are always conveniently pointing fingers at PU and sports anglers for environment disregard. Yet CF trawlers literally destroy the ocean floor as their heavy weighted nets drag along, not to mention their other crimes to the marine ecosystems. And the toll it has for salmon especially kings.

  2. The Kenai PU fishery is the most popular fishery in the State and benefits well over a hundred thousand Alaskans. It is no more dangerous that wading too deep while fishing with a rod and reel. Regrettably it harvests many many fish that used to be caught by commercial fishers. And it is this group that often submits or supports proposals to the BOF that in some way attempt to reduce harvest by our Alaska residents. Fortunately the BOF and the legislature recognize the huge benefit of the fishery and have continued to regulate it consistent with Alaska’s constitution, which requires management that provides the maximum benefit for Alaskans. BOF member Sue Jeffrey will likely find out how out of sinc she is with Alaskans if she gets reappointed by our one term and out Governor. Anyone who unreasonably tampers with the dip net fishery is sure to feel the wrath of the legislature during confirmation hearings. Since this article was written, the BOF voted 5 : 2 against Jeffrey’s last minute attempt to help the commercial interests. Her claim that the Dip Net fishery is dangerous and disorderly was simply not true and will not be forgotten when it comes time for confirmation

    • there is one small problem here. it is simply untrue to say that the fishery dipnet fishery “harvests many fish that used to be caught by commercial fishers.” the commercial havest in Cook Inlet is now double the historic harvest. it was doubled by state management paid for by all Alaskans. most of those Alaskans got nothing. dipnetters have, in recent years, attempted to get some of that harvest, but the many still take only a small slice of a pie. the big slice continues to go to a few.

      • The correct term is allocation. There is no denying that the PU fishery has taken a bite out of commercial allocation, however one feels about it.

  3. The dipnet fishery is much safer than it has been in the past, primarily due to measures taken by the local government and land owners who have been left to deal with it. Enforcement presence, traffic lanes, and a high tide no wake zone have greatly helped boating safety, as did moving the dipnet boating area out of the mouth and further upriver years ago. Unfortunately, moving upriver confines things more and more in a more sensitive ecosystem. I found myself disappointed that the conversation focused around safety with little discussion of the quality of experience in the fishery or feasibility of this expanding fishery right in the port of Kenai. Some of my favorite fisheries are probably the less safe ones. Copper sounds exciting – hopefully someday I’ll get there. I would not say any of these PU fisheries are less safe than many of our saltwater recreation options, but they are much more taxing on our public infrastructure and limited river ecosystem, and if any of these other fisheries reached the point of chaos that the Kenai PU fishery does in the middle of July there would be changes made. Saying that one has participated in or observed this fishery is not the same as saying one has participated in or observed this fishery from the waterline on the third weekend of July during primetime.

    This fishery is used both as a source of food security and recreation for Alaska residents, and the quality of the experience and affect on already established fisheries should be considered. Both are an issue in my opinion. To call this an orderly fishery with a sustainable rate of growth is a stretch in my opinion, and I’m equally disappointed that the board seems too worried about political backlash to discuss it, and that stakeholders who know better are seeking to expand this fishery further upriver at a detriment to our river and already established fisheries which are available to everyone, and are important to the culture and economy of the community most dependent on this river and the resources it provides.

    • Todd: i’ve rolled around in the sand in that fishery in late July for 20 years. it is now sometimes crowded, and apparently ADF&G wants to make it more so by suggesting the closure of bank areas with ABSOLUTELY ZERO habitat impact. as for anyfuture fishery growth, it would appear to me we have in some ways reached saturation much as the Russian River did long ago. when these fisheries reach a certain level of congestion, people stop showing up. it’s not much different than going to a popular movie. some will stand in line for hours to get in. others say, “screw it, i’ll go do something else.” but you left out one mitigating factor here…

      • Craig, I agree that PU participation seems to have reached a saturation point in its current area. If only the sense of entitlement would also… Of course both will increase if proposals to expand and privatize this fishery prevail. I would point out that while the Russian may have reached a saturation point years ago, the upper river as a whole did not. Participation continues to grow, expanding to other places on the already saturated river.

        Relative to ADFG’s proposal – there is significant impact at the W.A. bridge. Tents, coolers, campsites, and trails all over the wetlands are impactful and unsightly. Just a couple years ago, I saw a 35′ Motorhome parked on the busy fog line at the bridge, complete with a processing table set up on the bike trail. It was camped there for several days while they drug fish-filled coolers across the flats. I’m fairly certain this is the area ADFG was focused on with that proposal, not on the private property and access rights of the residents who’ve dealt with this fishery in their backyard and who would lose bank access to the fishery if the ADFG proposal is passed unchanged.

        There needs to be some infrastructure built at the W.A. bridge, and better access guidelines both there and in the boat fishery (which is also congesting upriver recreation sites and lead to increased river traffic). Perhaps you are unaware that the most affected area by the W.A. bridge is within KRSMA boundaries (DNR) and not directly under the City of Kenai or ADFG’s control. The city of Kenai has had to fight tooth and nail to establish many of the effective solutions used now, and has been vilified by many PU proponents for doing so. When the City established a no wake zone, it prompted questions over authority from both the State and even the Coast Guard. Repeated requests from the City to end 24hr dipping for cleanliness and order on City beaches and in the PORT OF KENAI have gone ignored. I believe that they have even tried to address the area at the bridge and been stalled by DNR gridlock. It’s unfortunate that the state and other influential agencies have not been more helpful in establishing decent sideboards to this fishery. Understandable though, being the political hot potato that it is. Hopefully ADFG’s proposal will prompt the agencies to work together to ensure we have both access and habitat protection at our state recreation sites. Pretty sure that was the intent of the author.

        I enjoy being able to access our lands – often times in powerboats and atv’s. I also like that people can get out on the flats and fish, duck hunt, bird watch, look for lures – whatever they like doing. But the PU fishery changes that area substantially for the summer, and while I don’t want to see access shut down, anywhere, I also want to see it controlled so as not to completely change the nature of the area. The same discussion is about to become relevant on the Kasilof with new and improved facilities and beach/boat access sites, but with no local authority/government to help control the issues that pop up. Hopefully people at the state level will grow a pair and help make the changes that need to happen so our river flats maintain the wilderness feel rather than that of the state fair. Perhaps many who visit these fisheries and see no problem don’t get to enjoy these areas in their natural beauty the other 10 months of the year. There is balance somewhere, but calling these safe, orderly fisheries devoid of any need for change whilst seeking to expand them further upriver is not the balance that most in my community are seeking.

      • Todd: They really ought to do something about the duck hunters. From what I’ve seen they cause far more habitat damage in this area than the dipnetters. Maybe a draw for waterfowl permits? And if this is solely about habitat, please explain to me the ADF&G proposal to limit the upper end of the north beach fishery on the Kenai? The only time anyone fishes there is at low tide. There is no habitat damage. The fishermen are actually fishing in the bed of the river. In fact, an upriver boundary is almost unnecessary because how far dipnetters go up the beach is already limited by how far they want to haul fish back to the Kenai access. Why remove fishing areas where there are no issues unless, of course, the idea is to further restrict harvest? And that appears to be the real intent behind several of these proposals. As for the bad behavior of motorhome owners or others, I’d suggest the city of Kenai or the Alaska State Troopers look at that as a simple money-making opportunity. If someone is truly blocking a bike path, write them a ticket. It’s against the law to obstruct a roadway in this state without a permit.

      • Craig, I went to lengths to explain that it is not just about habitat damage or safety. It is about quality of experience, orderliness, and respect for our wilderness/recreation areas. It is inaccurate and untrue to suggest that hunters do more damage to this area than dippers. There simply aren’t that many people duck hunting. If everyone from Homer to Anchorage came to the Kenai flats to duck hunt, we’d have to rethink things. For the record I duck hunt about as much as I dipnet, but I enjoy having the opportunity to do both if I please.

        I believe that the proposal for north bank closure of a small area only accessible during part of the tide cycle was in order to prevent confusion of boundaries, and to make regulations more consistent. If I remember correctly it really is a small area, and is consistent with some of ADFG’s other proposals aimed at cleaning up confusing regulatory language.

  4. Dear Craig,
    I live in the 5th home up from Inlet Salmon in the middle of the “dip-net” fishery on the lower Kenai. I take out for free folks that cannot dinner from shore. Old folks, families, disabled… I am on the river diving 12-15 days a season for the last 20 or so years. There are three issues that need to be dealt with. First, the heavy boats with inboard jet units will kill someone with their excessive wake in this small area. The City of Kenai put buoy’s up above the cannery so the banks don’t erode at high tide. This has helped a lot but it doesn’t slow the monster boats in non-buoyed areas. Second, City of Kenai needs to install fin clipping areas where boats can tie up when clipping their fish. Finally, the large commercial boat buoys need to tie up their rope that the boats tie onto. Several times I have run over buoy rope that is up to 100 feet below the buoy. This is dangerous and will swamp a boat unless the rope is immediately cut off the engine. There you have it.

  5. A few are going to die, be it fishing or hunting. I’ll take my chances. I use every fish I take home, none go to waste.

  6. I don’t think anyone needs the amount of sockeye being allocated for each individual in the Kenai River dipnet fishery. Also, the regulations of that fishery are NOT being enforced! Don’t make rules if you aren’t prepared to enforce them.

    • Bill Webb: You really ought to comment for only oneself as regards how many sockeye are needed for harvest per year via dipnetting/ personal use — and/or retention of salmon that are caught via x sports fishing gear/ tactics. I harvest at least 65 salmon per summer from sports fishing alone and in some summers my wife and I harvest another 35 via dipnetting if we are lucky. We use 100% of each and every salmon; 100% of the salmon harvested consumed prior to the following summer. I never waste a fish be it at the bank or due to freezer burn, etc. I’d venture to say a great many of my fellow long-term Alaskans are much the same (needing as many salmon as we can manage harvesting legally, per our rights and privileges as Alaskan residents). As for regulations, KR PU enforcement is not unlike regulations enforcement for other PU fisheries, and sports fishing, and commercial fishing regs enforcement too for that matter: the honor system applies. Some have it. Some don’t. Commercial fishers ought to be prohibited from harvesting salmon for their own use; required to strictly harvest for commercial use thus sale of “their salmon” to others. Not harvet for personal use. In the process and as a result, all CF would have to do PU dipnetting and/or sports fishing for their salmon, same as the rest of us, which would result in the entitled, indifferent CF then understanding the value and critical importance of maximium #s of salmon entering their freshwater drainages.

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