Representative from five different fishing groups and the City of Kenai had a panel discussion about the challenges facing Cook Inlet fisheries Wednesday at the Kenai Visitor's Center. (Photo: Shaylon Cochran/KDLL)
Representatives from nearly every fishing-related organization on the Central Peninsula got together for a panel discussion Wednesday at a joint meeting of the Kenai and Soldotna Chambers of Commerce. The message of the day was working together.
The Kenai Visitor’s Center was filled nearly to capacity, as voices from just about every corner of the local fishing world discussed the topic du jour: king salmon runs. And more specifically, how should the effects of low runs be distributed among user groups.
The moderator, Merrill Sikorski, got started by asking how things have changed the past 10-20 years. Most of the panel talked about more competition, more pressure on the various fisheries, more participation. Paul Dale, of the Alaska Salmon Alliance which represents commercial interests, talked about how much better business has become for processors.
“We went through a period of low prices and consequent business consolidation. A few people left the area. That has, happily, completely reversed. New entrants are moving in, markets are more varied than they used to be and profitability is up.”
For the next round, the panel got into what’s making it difficult to solve the problems that have gone on for so long. For Josh Hayes of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, it’s the dynamic nature of Upper Cook Inlet Fisheries.
“I think the most difficult aspect of management is that it’s a mixed-stock fishery. Traditionally, it’s been managed primarily for the sockeye and other fisheries have suffered at that cause. As far as meeting user expectations, I think it requires that all users in times of low abundance share the burden of conservation. But conversely, in times of excess that means we all share the rewards.”
That message was similar to Dwight Kramer’s, who spoke on behalf of private sport anglers as a member of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition.
“One word: cooperation. Cooperation among user groups to get together for the well being of the resource. All too often it’s about allocation issues and financial concerns between sport and commercial. A perfect example is the recent initiative attempt by a sportfishing group to end the livlihood of the east side setnet industry.”
The group Kramer was referring to is the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. They were invited to have someone sit on the panel, but had a press conference in Anchorage instead, to announce a lawsuit against the Lt. Governor.
Jim Butler is an east side setnetter and a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association…You’re keeping all these groups straight, right?…Butler says the biggest challenges are faced by ADF&G managers, because they don’t always have the flexibility they need to fish these areas as efficiently as possible.
“I think one of the reasons, unfortunately, that’s driven by certain political influences outside of the region. But also, what’s becoming increasingly unreasonable expectations by a lot of folks. It might be news to some, but fish don’t read calendars. If the fish aren’t here on Saturday, it’s nobody’s fault. They just don’t want to be here on that Saturday. But if they’re here on a Tuesday, you shouldn’t mandate that you can’t fish them.”
Now, basically every salmon that swims through the Inlet is appropriated to one fishery or another, or to the rivers so escapement goals can be met. But some of those fisheries are growing in participation. Like dipnetting.
So when every fish is already spoken for, how do you facilitate more people trying catch them? Sport guide Josh Hayes says more and more of his colleagues simply aren’t catching anything, and closing down.
“Currently, I don’t believe there will be any growth in my fishery or my industry until we see higher levels of true abundance of Kenai kings in river. Increasing participation in any fishery within Cook Inlet I think will have a compounding effect of the issues the resource is already experiencing.”
Growth in the personal use fishery is of particular concern to Kenai city manager Rick Koch, who also sat with the panel. While dipnetters bring a lot of dollars into town, hosting them for three weeks takes a lot of dollars, too.
“We see a tremendous amount of revenue come in during a very short period of time. Of which, unfortunately, we see the same expense. It’s about a break-even for the city of Kenai.”
With increased participation and concerns about king returns in mind, the question was how do we preserve the overall fishing business and culture in Cook Inlet.
Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease says more research is the key to strong returns and a strong industry.
“I think there’s some exciting research that’s going on out in Cook Inlet in terms of acoustics and finding entry patterns for both adults and juveniles as they’re exiting the Cook Inlet system. Instead of the ocean being a black box, and not knowing when it’s up and when it’s down, we need to figure out…what happens in the ocean as a window into the productivity of salmon.”
As most of the panel agreed, cooperation will also be a key ingredient to maintaining the different fishing opportunities here. ASA’s Paul Dale said a panel like this one was a good start.
“As participation grows I think our challenge, again, is to quit beating each other up over allocation and start spending time talking about how we are going to move together forward in a way that respects each other.”
All of these groups will have more opportunities to meet and mingle when the Board of Fish meets next in Anchorage to address some of these same questions.