It’s a relatively calm day on the Kenai beach for the opening day of dipnet. Weather is supposed to move in this weekend, bringing some increased winds and rain, but for now, the slack tide in the mouth of the Kenai River is almost glassy.
The beach is actually fairly quiet as well, though it’s still noon on a Friday. At the peak of the fishery, there can be hundreds of people lining every inch of the shore, each with a dipnet and a cooler to fill.
This year is different, though, when the normal shoulder-to-shoulder fishing is discouraged because of the coronavirus. Though some dipnetters were scattered way up the beach on Friday, most were still down near the river entrance. Many were able to keep about six feet between them, even in the water, though.
Several said they weren’t too worried about spreading the virus around on the beach, as they were able to keep apart and mostly to themselves.
The City of Kenai has had 30 COVID-19 cases so far, with about half of them still active, according to the Alaska Department of Health and Social Services. To help control the spread, the city is asking dipnetters to space their campsites apart and socially distance, and to wear masks when they can’t. There are also some new handwashing stations on the beach, in addition to the normal dumpsters and outhouses.
The Kenai Police Department doesn’t have the resources to enforce those requests, so Chief Dave Ross says they’re hoping dipnetters will observe them. Kenai Police officers are also trying to follow the guidelines to the extent practical, carrying masks and trying to keep their distance when possible.
"I think I would encourage people as they’ve been encouraged around the state to adhere to those guidelines, to wear masks when they can’t maintain social distancing, to maintain social distancing—it’s a big beach, it’s a big area," he said. "But as far as police enforcement, we just don’t have the resources to try to go around and ask people to do that one-on-one, so I’m hoping that the campaigns that are out there to encourage that are working. I really think there’s enough room there that we’ll see a lot of that anyway."
The Kenai Police Department was able to hire all five of its usual temporary enforcement officers for the summer, but one big difference for the dipnet this year will be the absence of Salmon Frenzy. Salmon Frenzy, a religious group that usually brings about 100 people to Kenai to volunteer and run ministry programs on the beach, had to cancel this year. Ross said the police department may be stretched a little thin, particularly in traffic control.
"Where we really use them on the Kenai beach side is they help do all the traffic control on Kenai Avenue, which years ago would get clogged when we didn’t have volunteers," he said. "So in the absence of those 100 people that help with the fishery, we may be a little shorthanded. We may have some issues on Kenai Avenue, controlling the traffic flow there on the busy weekends.
He asked people to be patient and to download the Kenai Dipnet app, which allows the city to push out notifications for items like dangerous tides, weather, and road closures. One new rule this year as well is no unattended fires on the beach, and no fires at all within 50 feet of the dunes.
As of Thursday, just under 68,000 sockeye had passed the sonar on the Kenai River, with 8,686 counted on Thursday. Dipnetters on Friday were having fairly good returns, with some reporting a dozen or so sockeye in their coolers by noon. Others said they were having less luck, with only a handful.
But that’s fishing.
Reach Elizabeth Earl at firstname.lastname@example.org.