King salmon are not yet decimated in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, but they are at the dangerously low end of modified Riker model escapement estimates necessary to sustain the species. Meanwhile, sockeye and other salmon returns remain strong. Subsistence and sport fishing access to kings and setnetter access to reds are at the heart of the 21st century version the Cook Inlet fish wars.
Habitat protection, in-river sport fishing, and set gillnets that do not distinguish between reds and kings are a part of the problem. In order to find a solution to the setnetter/sport fisher controversy, Brent Johnson, long-time Corea Bend setnetter, proposes experimenting with seine nets to replace gillnets. He's rigged a seine net to corral migrating salmon. The kings are then released to continue to their natal spawning rivers and the reds are sent to a processing plant.
Essentially he has created a seine version of an old-style fish trap.
Because of an earlier iteration of the salmon wars, fish traps are a dirty word in Alaska.
Commercial fish traps began to be used in the 1890s after it became apparent Inlet drift fishing in wooden boats under sail was neither efficient nor safe. Intertidal pile-driven posts strung with chicken wire diverted salmon into a holding pen, or pot, where they were periodically removed and taken to the cannery for processing. When not fishing, the pot was lifted and the fish swam through to spawn.
Some early 20th-century fish trap practices have rightfully been vilified as destructive to salmon. Many cannery operators in Southeast, Kodiak and Bristol Bay flaunted regulations, some even blocking entire stream mouths to harvest salmon, leaving piles of unharvested rotting salmon. Later, traps were restricted to a third of the stream mouth, still taking a heavy toll on escapement. Not until statehood were traps banned, but that issue was over access to fish, not the traps themselves, because the canneries owned most of the traps.
Early 20th century regulations were administered by the Treasury Department. For 1901 and 1902, agent Howard Kutchins was the lone regulator to come to Southcentral Alaska to oversee compliance. In reports for those years, Kutchins points out the evils of the trap system, indicating the cannery superintendents were well aware of the damage they were doing to fish runs. But they had powerful owners and shareholders to answer to, and greed-driven efficiency trumped conservation.
Kutchins condemned traps everywhere except in Cook Inlet. He wrote, "This is the one locality in Alaska where I should regard the use of traps as a positive necessity for the maintenance of packing plants." Moreover, there is scant evidence that Cook Inlet traps negatively impacted salmon runs. Variations in salmon harvests were due more to market factors, manpower limitations like World War II, and canneries burning -- which happened regularly with boilers in proximity to fish oil-soaked floors.
Kutchins writes: "In Cook Inlet the situation is far different (than other Alaskan fisheries) and it is probably true that traps, if not placed within a mile, say, of the mouths of the rivers ,can never work any serious injury to the fish supply. No device has yet been found, and probably never will be, that can prevent salmon from making their way in ample numbers to their spawning grounds."
Kutchins' "no device" assessment stood for almost a hundred years. But he could not have anticipated the late 20th century advent of ocean-going factory trawlers longer than a football field pulling miles-long nets sweeping up pollock, and the kings that feed on them, decimating Alaska king salmon populations. Until the ocean-going trawler problem is solved and we understand anthropogenic and natural climate oscillation effects on salmon returns, we are left to fight among ourselves for salmon allocation.
A divisive, polarizing fish fight only serves to make the problem unsolvable by inhibiting the will to recognize solutions. Brent Johnson's proposal does not deserve to be ignored or ridiculed. A trap itself is not morally bad.
If the state were smart, we would pour significant research dollars into his idea of a mini-trap with selective harvest capability for setnetting. If it works, and it's the best idea yet, the setnetters will get their reds and the sport fishers and Kenaitze subsistence harvesters will get their kings. The federal government will have to deal with factory trawlers and anthropogenic climate change. No one will live happily ever after, but we may live compatibly ever after and have contributed to the survival of wild king salmon.
Alan Boraas is a professor of anthropology at Kenai Peninsula College.