Faux subsistence?


Dipnetting was slow at the mouth of the Kenai River most of this year, but commercial fishermen don’t think it was slow enough/Craig Medred photo

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.

More than 500,000 of the sockeye hit nets offshore before mid-July when the Alaska Department of Fish and Game realize the sockeye run just wasn’t materializing as expected. 

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.

Fish wars

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.

12 replies »

  1. Dipnetting is actually an unregulated commercial fishery. I know many people that sell and trade dipnet caught Kenai and Copper River salmon. That’s not subsistence. That’s not personal use. And it’s not legal.

      • James, as Craig said!!! On the other hand I have been told by people living on the Kenai that they know comfishers that have freezers set up for kings that were never declared on fish tickets. These comfisheries then sell those kings privately with no landing tax or letting Moose and Goose know for statistics. I guess it works both ways. If I was privy to names on either side of the fishery I would be reporting it. Those are “OUR” fish, all of ours. Those folks hurt all of us for personal gain.

      • Ken, your being told of said comfishers setting up freezers and then selling those kings just doesn’t pass any smell test. Not that it couldn’t happen, just that the risk of such behavior being found out makes it unreasonable. And your sources seem to know too much about what is being done with said kings. Are the frozen in the round or are the processed into fillets and steaks?
        This is nothing more than saying some folks poach moose, only the “some folks” are a specific group of people needing trashing IMO.

      • so, Bill, is it safe to say your reaction to the comment at the top of the string would be the same?

        i tend to believe some illegal sales go on related to every salmon fishery in the state; i also tend to believe the problem isn’t big enough to spend much time worrying over except maybe in foreign countries.

        and it’s hard to do much about it there….

      • That comment by James is nothing similar to Ken’s and my reaction is not the same. You reacted appropriately to James’ post and that’s all that needs to be said IMO.
        Ken’s was nothing even resembling it and further, I said I thought it didn’t pass a smell test. There may be illegal sales but they will not be of the form suggested by Ken IMO.
        For example there have always been king salmon strips sold along the Yukon from subsistence fish but how many are prosecuted? I don’t know but I suspect this has been reduced due to the limited numbers of subsistence kings.

  2. Hunting season still, not many care about a couple weeks ago especially when it didn’t really impact their lives. Clearly not subsistence anymore, personal use is even debatable for many.

    Good history lesson though Craig! I always like hearing about how snagging was one of the real forms of gathering food to survive. This mouth snagging nonsense we have now-a-days is a joke for the “ethical gentleman” who kills fish just as dead as a guy who snags a fish elsewhere besides the mouth…execpt the “ethical gentlemen” of the mouth snagging variety release a lot more damaged fish.

  3. Thank you Craig, This is more information and if you want to send an e-mail to the BOF, you have until October 3rd, at 5pm. The link to read about this is here…/pdfs/2018-2019/ws/acrs/acr6.pdf. There is a link to e-mail the BOF at… Scroll down till you see submit comments. Help all Alaskans who dipnet in South Central to keep their access and to keep putting Fish in their freezers. Pass this on/share this and let your opinions be known. Any questions, e-mail me at Thanks, your town crier- ken

  4. Although Mr. Shadura has roughed out some regulatory elements to what he see’s is a possible solution to his problem with the status quo what the Board will be dealing with hear is an Agenda Change Request, not a proposal submitted for a regularly scheduled meeting of the Board on Upper Cook Inlet. That meeting is scheduled for spring of 2020 and the proposal deadline for that meeting is in the spring of 2019. The Board has a strict policy for deciding whether or not to take up issues out of the regular cycle. Here it is:

    5 AAC 39.999. POLICY FOR CHANGING BOARD AGENDA. (a) The Board of Fisheries
    (board) will, in its discretion, change its schedule for consideration of a proposed
    regulatory change in response to an agenda change request, submitted on a form
    provided by the board, in accordance with the following guidelines:
    (1) the board will accept an agenda change request only
    (A) for a fishery conservation purpose or reason;
    (B) to correct an error in a regulation; or
    (C) to correct an effect on a fishery that was unforeseen when a regulation was
    (2) the board will not accept an agenda change request that is predominantly
    allocative in nature in the absence of new information found by the board to be

    It will take some serious gymnastics for the Board to find that Mr. Shadura’s Agenda Change Request meets the criteria.

    • Yep! It would certainly seem that this does not meet the standards for an ACR. However, all it takes are 4 votes and it will be taken up out of cycle. Given the voting at the last UCI meeting, don’t be surprised if the same four that over turned reasonable and balanced regulations at the last UCI meeting move this ACR forward.

  5. Thank you Paul Shadura for elevating the issue of who gets salmon first back before the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Especially during an election year. +20,000 Alaskans who have become depended on the Kenia PU salmon fishery make up a pretty strong voting block, much larger than the number of voters holding limited entry fishing permits in Cook Inlet. Let’s see which candidate for governor of Alaska is willing to ignore Alaskans constitutional right ( Article 8, section 3 Common Use.) to harvest fish for their own personal use. We already know Walker/Mallott don’t care much about Common Use based on their current term in office.

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