A Cook Inlet commercial fisherman thinks the Kenai River personal-use (PU), dipnet fishery is starting to look too much like a subsistence fishery, so he has petitioned the state Board of Fisheries to establish methods to further restrict the dipnet catch.
“The PU fishery was originally implemented to allow Alaska residents a ‘reasonable opportunity’ and a ‘realistic expectation’ to harvest salmon when abundant stocks are present,” Paul Shadura wrote in an agenda change request to the board. “The current language on low productivity years on Kenai River sockeye returns have (sic) given this user group a de-facto priority over other users on sockeye runs of less than 2.3 million.”
Alaska has a state law that mandates a priority for fish and wildlife harvested for subsistence use by state residents. But the Kenai fishery was changed from a subsistence fishery to a personal-use fishery in 1995 specifically to kill a priority.
The action came after the Alaska Legislature, pressured by commercial and sport fishing and hunting groups, passed legislation ordering “the Boards of Fish and Game to identify non-subsistence areas “where subsistence was not a principal part of the social or economic structure of the community,” according to an Alaska Department of Fish and Game history.
Catches in the PU dipnet fishery since 1995 have ranged from a low of 98,000 sockeye in 2000 to a high of 538,000 in 2011 when more than 2 million sockeye escaped the nets of commercial fishermen to make it to the mouth of the Kenai. Almost 1.6 million of those fish got past the dipnetters, too, and made it upriver to spawn.
Dipnet catches have since declined. In recent years, they have been in the range of 260,000 to 380,000 fish per year. The five-year average through 2017 is 332,000.
But the fishery still attracts a small mob of Alaskans hoping to fill their freezers for the winter. Thirty-thousand to 35,000 people annually pick up permits to fish, and 20,000 to 28,000 report fishing.
2018 season fallout
Shadura is a second alternate to the board of directors of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, a group that represents commercial setnet fishermen. Inlet setnetters had a miserable season as did all commercial fishermen with the return of sockeye to the Kenai faltering this year.
The season-long, commercial harvest of 815,000 sockeye fell short of half of Fish and Game’s preseason forecast of a catch of 1.9 million, and more than 80 percent of the fish were caught by about 400 fishermen in the commercial, driftnet fleet.
Commercial fisheries were subsequently shut down, but the 17-hour per day dipnet fishery in the lower Kenai was allowed to continue. That angered commercial fishermen who didn’t think it was fair that dipnetters with their five-foot-wide dipnets should be allowed to fish while commercial fishermen with their 210-foot long gillnets were forced to the beach.
The dipnet catch for the year has not been totaled yet, but state biologists are expecting a harvest below 150,000. The last time the Kenai witnessed a return like 2018 was in 2006, and dipnetters caught only 128,000 fish.
The dipnet fishery is what fisheries managers call “density dependent.” When the river is plugged with salmon, dipnetters can catch a lot of fish, but they don’t do well when only small numbers of salmon enter the Kenai
The river saw few salmon during most of the dipnet fishery this year. About 60 percent of the sockeye return came after the dipnet season closed near the end of July. But that didn’t make commercial fishermen feel any better.
Shadura, who did not respond to a request for more on information on his proposal, suggested Fish and Game managers need a whole slew of new options to get the dipnet fishery under control:
“Language should reflect guidelines that for sockeye runs of less than 2.3 million to the Kenai River restrictions to; time, area, methods/means or possession limits. Areas could be further condensed, or boat fisheries could be restricted in time and area, bank fisheries could be restricted in time or area, numbers of fish allowed per day may be reduced. Verification of catch/harvest rates by PU or sport fishers could be more immediate by an electronic system, similar to the commercial fisheries e-tickets or some other online reporting mechanism that would allow more expedient and efficient in season management of returning sockeye salmon stocks.”
The fishery is already restricted to about 4 miles of the lower river by regulation. Most of the bank fishing takes place on a few hundred yards of sand on either side of the river mouth. And limited boat-launch facilities and limited space to manuever in-river already constrain the boat fishery.
But invariably when it comes to Cook Inlet salmon, somebody always thinks somebody else is landing an unfair share of the catch.
Cook Inlet fisheries have been at the center of political battles – and sometimes physical ones – that date back to the arrival of the Russians in Alaska and probably predate that.
Before the Dena’ina Athabascans arrived on the Inlet’s shores, the Kachemak Tradition people fished the region’s salmon, Fish and Game anthropologist Jim Fall wrote in a 2004 history of the region. The Kachemak eventually ceded the Inlet to the Deni’ana.
“Before the arrival of Europeans to the Cook Inlet region in the 1770s and 1780s, and throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries, the Dena’ina living near the Inlet and along major rivers flowing into the inlet traditionally relied on a variety of subsistence foods from the land and the sea,” Fall wrote. “There is little question, however, that salmon were the most critical resource for almost all the Dena’ina groups.”
That lifestyle was quickly disrupted.
“Traditional Dena’ina resource use patterns gradually changed throughout the early 1800s. Russian fur traders brought about disruptive economic, social, and health conditions,” Fall wrote.”The fur trade was the first major external economic force to change the Dena’ina way of life. During the Russian and early American periods, it was legal only for Alaska Natives to harvest fur.
“Russian traders introduced cash and other trade items into the Dena’ina economy. The increased pressure on the Dena’ina due to the fur trade placed an emphasis on a highly structured socio-economic system and altered much of the traditional annual cycle
of resource harvest.”
Even bigger changes were on the horizon with the arrival of the first salmon processing operations in the late 1800s. By the start of the 1900s, fish traps were operating in the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and the Dena’ina were working in the canneries in the summers to survive.
“As the non-Native population of the Cook Inlet region grew during the early 20th century, others besides the Dena’ina and the Alutiiq began using the salmon resources of the area for commercial sale and home use,” Fall noted. “In 1904, building the predecessor of the Alaska Railroad set the stage for the first sport fishery on the Kenai Peninsula. It began with fishermen from Seward traveling to Kenai Lake and Cooper Landing to fish for large rainbow trout. Cooper Creek was a focal point for trophy rainbow fishing. As word spread about the exceptional size of these fish, sportsmen from the lower 48 and Europe began traveling to Seward and lodges on Kenai Lake.”
The people who lived at those lodges fished for subsistence, too, and when homesteaders started showing up on the Kenai Peninsula in the 1930s and ’40s, they did likewise.
“Homesteaders took fish for household consumption by several methods,” Fall wrote. “Snagging with a rod and reel was one of the most efficient methods for people unfamiliar with riverine net fishing. Homesteaders found snagging to be the most economical and efficient legal method, and it worked well in the fast flowing waters of many rivers and streams where nets would be swept away or caught on snags. Nets were effective in parts of the river, especially near stream mouths and in quiet eddies or pools.”
The growing subsistence fisheries in the 1940s ran into conflict with the commercial salmon industry. In 1952, netting fish in rivers was banned. Most people turned to snagging.
So that was banned, too.
“Snagging was restricted to the head in 1969,” Fall wrote. “By 1973, snagging any part of the fish was made illegal. This rule greatly reduced the local meat fishermen’s ability to harvest fish for home use. More local residents headed to the beaches of Cook Inlet to fish with gill nets in the subsistence fishery.”
Meanwhile, sport fishing – snagging the fish in the mouth – expanded in significant part to meet the subsistence needs of snaggers, but it eventually grew to attract tourists from across the country.
“By the early 1980s the sportfishing industry was growing rapidly on the Kenai Peninsula and became a major competitor with the commercial and subsistence fisheries,” Fall wrote. “In the 1980s, the Alaska Board of Fisheries added more restrictions on both subsistence and personal use fishing along the Kenai Peninsula’s Cook Inlet beaches; beaches were closed to subsistence gillnetting and by the mid 1990s only two personal use fisheries remained at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.”
There were political battles big and small over most of these changes, but commercial fishing interests usually won. For a time after they aligned with sport fishing interests to rid the region of snagging as an unethical practice, they looked to own the Inlet salmon, and they were the big winners when the depressed salmon runs of the 1960s and early 1970s began to rebound into the 1980s.
An average commercial harvest of 980,000 sockeye per year from 1960 to 1975 increased to 4.4 million per year in the 1980s and thereafter settled in at about 3 million per year. More than 80 percent of the increased catch went to the Inlet’s commercial fishermen.
Non-commercial fishermen started pushing back against the allocation in the 1980s, first over king salmon and coho salmon, but the battle later spread to sockeye where it sits today.
It’s an old story. And one in which almost no one ever thinks of himself (or herself) as being treated fairly.