Anchorage businessman was a true Alaska success story
Bob Penney, a true Alaska character loved by some and hated by others, is dead at the age of 90.
Cook Inlet commercial fishermen will need to find another bogeyman on which to focus their anger. Penney was long their enemy #1 thanks to his tireless efforts to protect the unique Chinook salmon of the Kenai River – the big fish that Alaskans call “king.”
Sadly, if Inlet commercial fishermen now sidelined due to a shortage of kings had followed Penney’s lead, some of them would be a lot better off today. In the 1980s, hoping to end the commercial bycatch of kings in the Inlet’s massive sockeye fishery, Penney had a consultant draw up a plan for a Kenai River fish trap to clean up the harvest problem in the mixed-stock fishery off the river’s mouth.
Penney’s thought was that eastside Inlet setnetters – who indiscriminately catch kings in their monofilament gillnets intended to catch sockeye salmon – could give up their setnet permits, form a collective to operate an in-river fish trap, use that trap to catch the maximum number of sockeye the Alaska Department of Fish and Game thought available for harvest, and then share the profits from the sale of those fish.
It was a big, bold idea. Penney liked big bold ideas.
In the late 1980s, he was deeply involved the Anchorage Organizing Committee’s effort to bring the Winter Olympics to the 49th state despite a significant lack of the facilities needed to stage the games.
Like others on the committee, Penney saw the lack of facilities not as an impediment, but as a challenge. Anchorage would just have to build them.
A man who made his fortune as a real estate developer, Penney liked the idea of building things. He was a fan of big public projects, too, and poured time and money into politics to try to make them happen.
The long-discussed Susitna River hydroelectric project that has never gone anywhere was one of those projects. So, too, that Kenai fish trap, the construction of which would have required reversing an Alaska law that banned such traps at Statehood.
Alaskans, and especially the state’s then highly influential commercial fishermen, didn’t like that most of the traps were in territorial days controlled by Lower 48 business interests or businesses from “Outside” as Alaskans refer to the rest of the country.
Penney saw the Kenai trap as a whole different deal.
Local fishermen would get their sockeye and the profits, and in exchange, they would use the trap to separate the sockeye from the kings and allow the latter to pass on upstream to their spawning grounds unharmed.
Unfortunately for the setnetters, short-term desires for profit got in the way of any long-term understanding of profitability, and they went bananas over the idea of giving up any valuable Chinook.
Part of this was the natural opposition to change. People generally hate change.
Part of it was culture war. Kenai setnetters saw Penney as a rich sport from the city and themselves, even the ones comfortably well off, as the little guys, the commoners, trying to get by pursuing an old lifestyle that had once made them the rulers of the Inlet.
A strong sense of entitlement being a mainstay of commercial fishermen in the 49th state, they also believed they were owed most of those returning Kenai kings, pound for pound the most valuable of Alaska salmon, and the interests of Penney, other anglers or those in the Alaska tourism business be damned.
Needless to say, they adamantly opposed Penney’s idea and the trap plan died.
In its wake came a long-running war between the old developer turned conservationist and the commercial fishermen. Penney waged it on multiple fronts. In 1994, his efforts and his money played a significant role in helping to get Alaska Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat and an avid angler, elected to office.
Management of Cook Inlet salmon fisheries subsequently began a slow shift away from commercial fisheries dominance under a Knowles-directed Alaska Department of Fish and Game. But at the time king populations were booming in the Inlet, and the bounty of fish made it easier to broker compromises between sport and commercial interests.
All of that began to change not long after Knowles left office having served two terms. King numbers started falling and kept falling. Anglers more and more started complaining about all the kings being caught “incidentally” in the sockeye gillnets strung along the east shore of the Inlet in what Penney took to calling “the curtain of death.”
He was outraged by the unwillingness of setnetters to try to find a solution to their interception of Kenai-bound kings and in the mid-2010s helped fund an initiative that would have let Alaskans vote on whether set gillnets should be banned in popular, easily accessible areas such as the Kenai Peninsula – areas Alaskans consider “urban” no matter how “rural” they might look to any visitor from that place Alaskans call Outside.
In 2015, the Penney-backed Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted 43,000 signatures to the Alaska Division of Elections to certify the initiative and provide Alaskans a chance to vote on the future of “urban” setnet fisheries.
But the initiative never made it onto the ballot. Then Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, a Republican in charge of state elections at the time and a man aligned with commercial fishing interests, rejected the initiative as an attempt to “allocate” state resources to sport fishing interest despite the fact the biggest winners had the initiative passed would have been commercial drift gillnetters.
The Alaska Constitution specifically prohibits voters from voting on initiatives that reward them with state resources.
The Conservation Alliance went to court to contest Treadwell’s decision and won at the lower court level, but the state appealed to the Alaska Supreme Court which, in one of the more interesting rulings in state history, decided that although “the Superior Court approved the initiative, concluding that set netters were not a distinct commercial user group and that the Legislature and Board of Fisheries would retain discretion to allocate the salmon stock to other commercial fisheries….we conclude that set netters are a distinct commercial user group that deserves recognition in the context of the constitutional prohibition on appropriation.”
The court has never made it clear which of the state’s many “distinct commercial user” groups deserve such recognition.
Penney, who first came to Alaska in 1951 to take a job in a lumber yard only to become one of the state’s most successful businessmen, was not happy with that decision, which largely flew in the face of previous Supreme Court precedents, but he was not deterred in his efforts to protect Kenai kings.
He subsequently helped encourage studies by Canadian scientists David Welch, a specialist in tracking fish with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags, to determine if it was possible to solve the bycatch problem in the setnet fishery by fishing gillnets higher in the water column.
Despite a lack of cooperation from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game while trying to undertake those studies, Welch and colleagues concluded that fishing the Inlet with shallower net held the potential to catch plenty of sockeye while allowing deeper-swimming kings to slip beneath.
Preliminary investigations, the group reported, provide the first “data on how setnets actually fish in Cook Inlet, and the specific technical methods we report here likely have much broader potential application to managing bycatch worldwide.
“The exceedingly shallow net depths we document in Cook Inlet were unexpected given the potential maximum depth of the nets. When tidal currents were strongest, the average leadline depth for all nets was less than 1.5 meters (approximately 5 feet) – only 26 percent of the potential maximum fishing depth of a standard 45 mesh net – and leadlines sometimes reached as shallow as 0.6 meters – 11 percent of maximum depth – regardless of net construction. As current strength dropped, leadline depths gradually increased, but for half the tidal cycle all instrumented nets remained at less than half their maximum potential depth.”
The results suggested that the state could reduce the bycatch of kings by either requiring shallower nets or scheduling fishing times so that roaring tides lifted the nets up to allow kings to pass beneath, but commercial fishermen were opposed to both ideas and the regulation setting Board of Fish dragged its feet on ordering major changes in the fishery, although it did endorse the idea of shallower nets.
Looking for more leverage, Penney in 2018 threw his political support and resources behind Mike Dunleavy, a Republican and another avid outdoorsmen. The Dunleavy administration took much the same approach to the management of Inlet salmon that the Knowles administration had, though there were a lot fewer kings left to manage.
Sadly for everyone, and maybe most especially Penney, nature eventually rendered further discussions of bycatch moot. Steadily declining returns to the Kenai forced ever more restrictions on both commercial and sport fishermen as state fishery managers struggled to meet spawning goals.
For the past four years, fishery managers have failed to meet the in-river goal of a minimum 15,000 late-run Kenai kings, The low numbers have, in turn, forced closures in both the sport and commercial fisheries.
Though a healthy return of 2.8 million sockeye is forecast for the Kenai River this year, with another 1.1 million expected back at the nearby Kasilof River, Alaska Fish and Game early in the month announced the closure of “set gillnet fishing for salmon in the Kenai, Kasilof, and East Forelands Sections of the Upper Subdistrict until further notice, effective immediately” to protect another return of kings that is expected to be extremely weak.
Fishery managers added that they would “closely monitor king salmon abundance in the Kenai River and if king salmon abundance out performs the preseason forecasted total run of 13,630 large king salmon and the optimum escapement goal of 15,000–30,000 large fish can be achieved, then the ESSN fisheries may be opened in-season.”
The Inlet’s commercial fishermen are learning the hard way that the Alaska Constitution places resource conservation above any ownership interest. The setnet fishermen now find themselves shut down because their dirty gillnet fishery doesn’t allow for the harvest of sockeye without the bycatch and killing of some kings.
The Board of Fish just this week voted down a proposal from those fishermen to allow them to continue fishing despite the bycatch problem.
It was a last victory for Penney whose interest in Kenai kings began with a desire to catch the big fish with rod and reel only to morph into the desire to see a large and healthy run of Kenai kings preserved forever.
The driving force behind the creation of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association in 1984, Penney played a huge role in restoring habitat along the banks of a river once being loved to death. Over the years, the Sportfishing Association he in large part bankrolled became a leader in restoring and preserving riverside habitat once ignored by local homeowners and sometimes trampled bare by anglers.
Penney’s role marked a transformation for a man once the bugbear of Alaska environmentalists for his aggressive support for the dam across the Susitna, another Alaska salmon stream.
The proposed, 750-foot-tall, $5 billion dam would have flooded approximately 40,000 acres of wild land just east of Denali National Park and Preserve. One of the “boomer” generation of Alaskans who showed up in the Alaska Territory before Statehood in 1959, Penney gravitated to the dam proposal in the 1970s because of its potential to provide cheap, long-term power.
He was then the chairman of the Energy Committee for the state Chamber of Commerce. In that role, he appeared before the Legislature to advocate for investing $1.8 billion in Alaska Permanent Fund earnings in the project as part of a financing package that would ensure long-term, reasonably-priced power.
Almost 30 years later, he was still pushing for the project, telling a reporter for Alaska Business Monthly magazine that the dam mattered more than ever with dwindling supplies of natural gas in Cook Inlet threatening to send electricity prices skyrocketing in the state’s largest city.
In the decade that followed, however, he turned his attention ever more to the Kenai River along which he’d built a spectacular, 3,200-square-foot, lodge-like log home that became his summer residence.
With returns of late-run Kenai kings plummeting by the mid-2010s, he suggested putting the fish on the endangered species list much to the chagrin of some Kenai River fishing guides.
“This is like detonating a nuke on the guides and Joe fisherman, but will unlikely make much difference to the ESSN (east side setnet) fishery and PU (personal use) fishery,” one complained on a popular forum at Alaska Outdoorsdirectory.com. “The in-river sockeye, silver, and pink fisheries would probably remain untouched. The saltwater troll fishery would likely be closed.”
Worst of all, from the guides’ perspective, such a listing would have shut down all in-river angling for the big salmon, but that has come anyway as king numbers have continued to spiral downward.
Penney himself didn’t care about losing the insanely early hours he once spent on the river fishing kings. He was more about seeing them protected. Maybe it’s something about age that changes values and increases the desire to preserve what once was. Who knows.
What brought him to the river first was without a doubt his love for fishing. He was among the many in the 1980s who believed the Kenai would one day produce a 100-pound Chinook, and he yearned to be the man to catch it.
The world record to this day remains 97 pounds, four-ounce king the late Les Anderson, a Soldotna auto dealer, pulled from the river in 1985, and it’s been decades since the river has produced a fish anywhere close to that size.
These changes were hard for Penney to take, and he had been spending increasing amounts of time Outside. Friends said he took the dismal Chinook return forecast for this year hard. It might be in some ways a good thing that at age 90 he is not coming home for the summer.
It was hard for Penney to sit beside the Kenai and watch a river once busy with king salmon fishermen in July go silent.
Footnote: The author had a long and interesting relationship with Bob Penney, a man prone to be a giant pain in the ass if you wrote something he didn’t like and cloyingly complimentary if it was the opposite.
Some reporters love when people blow smoke up their asses. This one never did.
Penney regularly made me uncomfortable in that regard, and on the several occasions when I fished with him, his guide-like attitude sometimes proved a little overpowering. I knew how to hook and play fish before I came to Alaska as a young man in 1973, and I was the outdoor editor of the Anchorage Daily News for decades.
I really didn’t need any advice on how to play a salmon, but Penney obviously couldn’t help himself when he was in the boat. He clearly enjoyed watching others catch kings more than catching them himself.
Outside of the boat, he was little changed from the guy who came to Alaska to sell lumber in the 1950s: he was a salesman. As a reporter, I’ve spent a fair amount of time around people with money, and I’d have to say Penney was the most down-to-earth rich guy I ever spent time around.
He was a guy, who if you got to know him, you couldn’t hardly help but like despite his flaws. We all have them. Some of us are lucky to be more likable than others.
Penney was, in that regard, blessed with the skills of a salesman. I was not.
Correction: The origional version of the story had the wrong year for Les Anderson’s record king salmon catch.