KENAI RIVER – Sockeye salmon swarmed the mouth of Alaska’s most popular stream on Wednesday.
Invisible beneath the surface of the muddy glacial water, they returned in such numbers a 10-year-old with a landing net could scoop them up and drag them ashore, and one did.
Wading into the 60-degree water in shorts and a t-shirt, he guided his net with its comparatively short 6-foot handle through the murky water and pulled out salmon after salmon.
Asked if he was cold, his answer was simple: “No, I’m not in the water that much.”
There was some truth to the statement. He was catching fish so fast and furious he was on the beach dispatching them and untangling them from the old-fashioned nylon net more than he was in the river.
All around him, adults with seemingly better equipment – dipnets with bigger hoops fitted with near-invisible monofilament nets attached to the ends of 10- to 30-foot poles – caught salmon one after another, too, but the kid seemed to be out fishing them all.
Then again, everyone was catching fish, even those with heavier, pricier Costco dipnets who were largely forced by the weight of their equipment to stand rigid in the current of the river waiting for a fish to stumble into the net and snag itself.
The kid was among the walkers who waded downstream waist-deep in the current to snare fish. There was a conga line of a couple dozen of them in the early afternoon that shrunk as the day wore on.
By 3 p.m., with many people out of the water and busy cleaning fish, there might have been only a dozen walkers and a lot of them by then appeared to be catching sockeye regularly two at a time.
An Alaska Department of Fish and Game salmon-counting sonar 19 miles upstream on the river would later record 53,362 salmon arriving on the day, though it captured only the vanguard of the return. It takes the bulk of fish 24 up to 72 hours to hit the sonar, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game studies.
Still, an observer didn’t need sophisticated technology to tell that the mouth of the river chock-a-block full of sockeye on this day. The evidence was in the swirls of fish just offshore, the silver shapes torpedoing out of the current only to rocket back into the water and, of course, in the salmon being dragged ashore by the dozen flopping in dipnets.
Not even a blind man could have missed it given the thrashing sounds of salmon in the nets on the rocky beach, the shouts of joy and banter of successful fishermen and, of course, the constant whap, whap, whap of fish billies striking the heads of salmon killed and tossed into growing piles of fish carcasses.
It was a big and pleasant change from 2018 when a faltering Kenai sockeye run left commercial fishermen on the beach and caused the state to close personal-use dipnet and sport fisheries for a time as well to ensure spawning needs were met.
Dipnetting is an indigenous, North American fishing technique that traces back hundreds, possibly thousands of years. It predates the arrival of the first Europeans on the continent and likely goes back much farther in time, but traditional dipnets with their wooden handles and hoops with baskets woven of roots or sinew are not the sort of objects that last long in the archeological record.
Dipnets were, however, observed and recorded in use as early as the 1600s in the Great Lakes region of North America. Archaeologist Charles Cleland describes a “unique and glamorous dip net fishery at the St. Marys River rapids at Sault Ste. Marie, (Mich.). Dablon, writing in 1669, describes the activity of these Ojibwa fishermen:
“‘It is at the foot of these rapids, and even amid these boiling waters that extensive fishing is carried on, from spring until winter, of a kind of fish found usually only in Lake Superior and Lake Huron. It is called in the native language Atticameg, and in ours ‘whitefish,’ because in truth it is very white; and it is most excellent, so that it furnishes food, almost by itself, to the greater part of all these peoples.
“Dexterity and strength are needed for this kind of fishing; for one must stand upright in a bark canoe, and there, among the whirlpools, with muscles tense, thrust deep into the water a rod, at the end of which is fastened a net made in the form of a pocket, into which the fish are made to enter.”
Similar fishing techniques would later be highlighted among the indigenous residents of the Pacific Northwest and finally of Alaska. The Dena’ina Athabascans sometimes dipnetted in Cook Inlet itself. They fished “from platforms of poles called ‘tanik’edi’ that were constructed over the inlet’s mud flats,” writes anthropologist James Fall with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game
Most Alaska dipnet fishing now takes places primarily in two rivers – the Kenai, about 60 miles south of Anchorage, and the Copper River near the Canadian border about 160 miles east of the state’s largest city. By regulation and permit, both fisheries are limited to Alaskan-residents only.
The style of the fishing gear hasn’t changed much since prehistoric days. The dipnet still consists of a long handle attached to a hoop with a net, but wood, root or sinew were long ago replaced by aluminum, nylon or monofilament.
Still, the fishery in some ways remains primitive.
For every Kenai dipnetter who came fully equipped on Wednesday with a billy for dispatching fish, there was another who grabbed the handiest rock on the beach with which to subdue his or her catch.
And though most dipnetters were outfitted in chest waders or drysuits to stay warm in the cold waters, there were others – like the kid at the start of this report – wading in without such protection – any discomfort apparently overpowered by the burning desire to catch fish.
And catch fish they did.
It was a good day to be on the beach, arguably better than the weekend when waves of salmon also stormed the river (76,650 passed the sonar on Sunday) only to be met by a mob of people.
On a busy weekend, the beaches on the north and south banks of the Kenai can overflow with people. But on Wednesday the sea gulls hanging around hoping to dine on salmon offal after dipnetters cleaned their far outnumbered the people.
“i’m a guy who won’t touch a door handle in a public restroom after washing my hands.” So then how do you manage to get out?
Paper towels. Only those who’ve never used them or never washed their hands wouldn’t know that.
Do you poop and not wash your hands monk?
It’s worth noting that DEC has issued an advisory for the beach areas.
“The Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) has issued a recreational beach advisory for the Kenai River mouth due to elevated levels of enterococci found in the marine water. This recreational advisory will remain in effect for personal use fishery (July 10-31). Following the personal use fishery, the advisory will be lifted when two consecutive weekly samples have shown enterococci levels at safe levels.”
The advisory continues
“DEC recommends beach users take precautions to avoid exposure, such as avoiding swimming in the water, and washing after contact with the water. DEC advises that people take precautionary measures when fishing along the Kenai River Beaches by rinsing fish with clean water after harvesting from the area. As always, people should cook seafood to a minimum internal temperature of 145 degrees Fahrenheit to destroy pathogens.”
“Contact with water impacted by enterococci bacteria may cause stomach aches, diarrhea, or ear, eye, and skin infections.”
Adults catching fish in these waters is questionable, having children swimming in these waters is not advisable as noted above.
Not so worried about contracting an illness from fishing in the Kenai, but I cannot believe that these folks are cleaning their catch there. Grrrrrross!
i’d suggest folks need to read up on enterococci, which are “used as surrogates for waterborne pathogens and as fecal indicator bacteria (FIB).” https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3510518/
in other words, they might indicate there is a danger, and they might not. my personal observation here is that if there were a real danger of serious pathogens we would have seen a disease outbreak years ago.
i’ve cleaned catch in the Kenai for years. granted, i wash it well at home, freeze it (to kill the inherent nematodes: http://www.bccdc.ca/resource-gallery/Documents/Educational%20Materials/EH/FPS/Fish/IllnessCausingFishParasitesJan13.pdf), and finally cook it.
but i’ve never had any concern about eating it.
so which species of enteroccoci is it? “The genus Enterococcus includes more than 17 species, although only a few cause clinical infections in humans.”
my personal experience having spent a lot of time over a lot of years with my hands in that water is that in Alaska at least pushki is far more dangerous: https://www.fs.usda.gov/Internet/FSE_DOCUMENTS/fseprd506355.pdf
i’m itching, as usual. bleeding from the unavoidable scratching. and wondering why this has never led to significant infection. knock on wood.
I don’t think there is a need to shutdown the fishery, I just think people should know they are pulling food out of a waterway that the state Department of Environmental Conservation has issued an advisory on due to fecal bacteria. I would not clean my fish in the fecal filled water, I wouldn’t let my children swim in it either, children put all kinds of things in their mouths all the time and doing so in contaminated water is not a good idea.
All that being said, I dig clams and every year and every year the state DEC issues an advisory for paralytic shellfish poisoning, I make a decision as an informed adult.
actually, it was an advisory due to enteroccoci, which is very different. and it was issued on June 6 from samples collected on June 4: https://dec.alaska.gov/commish/press-releases/19-04-dec-issues-advisory-for-kenai-north-beach/
the Kenai at the time the samples were taken was running at less than 6,000 CFS. by early July, it was near 19,000 CFS. that’s one hell of a flush. sort of like the water in your toilet before and after you take a dump.
it’s now between 14,000 and 15,000 CFS. that, too, is a pretty big flush. https://waterdata.usgs.gov/ak/nwis/uv?cb_00060=on&cb_00065=on&format=gif_default&site_no=15266110&period=&begin_date=2019-06-06&end_date=2019-07-26
the only valid conclusion anyone can make here is that the Kenai might be polluted. then again, it might not. it’s no doubt a good idea to wash your fish when you get home and freeze them (nematodes are to my mind a much bigger threat than any bacteria involved in this case) and then cook them well.
meanwhile, simple logic dictates that given all the people involved in the dipnet fishery and exposed to the water, a health problem would have shown itself if there was a health problem. everyone gets there hands in the water. everyone then touches other parts of their bodies with those water exposed hands. plenty of people get soaked whether they wade without waders or go over them or trip and fall and fill them or have leaks.
You said it yourself: “the only valid conclusion anyone can make here is that the Kenai might be polluted.”
“Over the past three decades there has been a dramatic increase in the rates of enterococcal infections, particular those associated with the healthcare system…Enterococci are often involved in mixed infections.
Enterococcal infections have a propensity to affect elderly, debilitated or immunocompromised patients whose mucosal barriers and normal flora have been altered by instrumental procedures and/or antibiotic therapy.
Enterococci can produce infections at multiple anatomic sites. These include:
Bacteremia and vascular catheter-related bloodstream infections (BSIs)
Urinary tract infections (UTIs)
Abdominal and pelvic infections
Skin and soft tissue infections
Joint and bone infections
which goes back to my original question, which of the 17 enterococci are we dealing with here? a bunch are harmless. some aren’t. certainly immunocompromised people should avoid taking risks, but the rest of us?
i’m a guy who won’t touch a door handle in a public restroom after washing my hands. i’m not worried about the Kenai when the current is flowing strong. the numbers just upstream from the dipnet beach indicate the river water is acceptable to mildly contaminated so we can pretty well rule out the sewage plant as a problem.
but to each his own. if you think it’s dangerous, avoid the beach.
for the record, however, the EPA standard for fecal coliform at swimming beaches is 126/100mL. https://www.epa.gov/beach-tech/nationwide-bacteria-standards-protect-swimmers-beaches
the latest count at gull rookery 2 just upstream from the dipnet fishery was 56/100mL. it was higher – 82/100mL – down on the lower north Kenai beach in a tidally influenced location that appears to concentrate the bacteria.
but even there the EPA thinks it safe for your kid to swim.
The advisory is in effect for the entire dip net season and will be lifted after two consecutive weekly samples show safe levels. So while the sample that the advisory was based on was back during lower water flows, there are also more birds and people and dogs on the beach now that there are higher flows. Using the toilet flushing is appropriate I this case, but instead of just you using your toilet so are all of your neighbors. The toilet gets flushed more but there is also a lot more shit going through it. And I’m not letting my kids swim in the toilet or cleaning my fish in my toilet, whether it’s just me using it or my whole neighborhood. I don’t clean fish in harbors either, definitely not on the cleaning tables provided at most ports that are nothing but large toilet bowls with various other contaminants thrown in for good measure…but that’s just me and I would rather clean my fish out where the waste is more diluted!
Steve-O: i would expect those harbor fish-tables are a significantly better source of bacteria than the Kenai River.
there are more people, birds and dogs on the beach, but most people clean fish above all but the birds. not to mention that it’s been a long time since i’ve seen anyone drop their drawers and crap on the beach.
the upstream waste treatment plant would seem to be a greater concern, but that doesn’t appear to be an issue. the water samples near the gull rookery upstream from the dipnet fishery are way cleaner than off the beach.
but the river is really rolling upstream, and the beach site is near the lower end of the dipnet fishery where there is almost no current.
the numbers also seem to be tidally influenced. they were much higher on the 17th when big tides were pushing in from the Inlet than on the 23 when the tides were much less. DEC pointed me to the actual data buried in their website:
you can find it by going here: http://dec.alaska.gov/commish/press-releases/19-08-dec-issues-advisory-for-kenai-river/ and then scrolling down to Analytical Data Results (PDF).
it’s worth noting the dipnet beach sampling sites also appear to be well above low tide when you would have the least push of relatively clean Kenai water moving to the Inlet. near slack on a rising tide below the fishery would seem the time to sample to get maximum values.
i certainly wouldn’t want my kid wading in the Inlet then, but the numbers don’t appear to be representative of the situation when the tide is out and current is rolling downstream. the gull rookery numbers would seem more representative then, and they’re not bad.
The way I understand it is that there is an upstream wastewater dump from Soldotna that is treated to some extent, and another wastewater dump from Kenai that is treated to some extent and is dumped offshore a bit. All of the downstream water from the Soldotna wastewater dump is safe according to the state until the beach at Kenai, the Kenai wastewater treatment plant is at the north beach, it is also a popular place for people to walk their dogs. The tide goes in and out and water flow from the river varies. The unsafe levels start before the dipnetting season and last until after the dipnetting season, this is also during the prime dog walking time for this stretch of beach. Having masses of humans with minimal restroom facilities and maximum use for humans, dogs, and birds is not the best time for cleanliness. Like I said I make a decision as an informed adult.
Two points to make…first off these Enterococci are often involved in “mixed infections”, so the presentation is not as dynamic as say the common flu like symptoms.
If you would ask public health nurses and P.A.’s …you would find there are many cases of say Urinary tract infections of which the source is often hard to discern.
Secondly, all the data I have read states that Enterococci can “Colonize” in the beaches and multiply in concentration so in theory lesser concentrations could be released at sewage plants and the Enterococci could be reproducing in the favorable “sandy” conditions near the beach.
So a very interesting advisory. Especially considering a sewage plant is dumping up stream . I read the advisory. It places the primary blame on gulls per genetic testing. To me that seams like someone may have either done very poor sampling or claimed something that isn’t correct. Possibly some form of reduction in liability in case someone files lawsuit over illness. ( we warned you Yet you fished – got into water anyway) Also a way to show proof and reduce liability for sewage plant. Poor sampling as in too small a sample in a small area over to small a section of time and got a misleading sample contaminated by a high concentration of gull poop? I see this as suspect information or at a minimum incomplete advisory because the kenai and it’s tides are in a constant state of massive movement mixing and flushing. Passing through. It’s only partially stagnant at high tide for a few minutes. The probable way to get high counts from a bird is to take a sample very very close to or on shore when a bird just pooped there . A very large sample is the only way to get an accurate count of what’s in the water . The specifics of the study need published for it to have any real bearing on decision making for the use of that river . If the river truly tested high counts it’s probable there is also contributing contamination up stream .
You are probably right on the “shit plant” upstream contributing to the high rates of bacteria near the mouth of the Kenai.
“Due to their ubiquity in human feces and persistence in the environment, enterococci have been adopted as indicators of human fecal pollution in water…
Although there is debate about the extent to which this happens in nature, there is evidence that enterococci are capable of replicating in extra-enteric environments, such as on beach sands…
Some data suggest that Enterococcus faecium and Enterococcus faecalis may be more prevalent in human feces than other enterococcal species.”
Steve per dec test their claim is gulls are pollution source per the genetics of enterocci . Good info on potential replication in sand . I didn’t realize their is a full rookery upstream. That could make impact . Craig did make important note about lack of known illness occurring from fishing in kenai. Seams someone would have mentioned getting ill if a major problem. I see kids playing in the water like otters . The question is why on earth do the cities use rivers for sewage disposal particularly in a world renowned river ?