The state's fish policymakers are poised to vote today on dozens of proposals to limit the Kenai Peninsula's popular dipnet fisheries, due mainly to concerns raised by commercial fishermen about overcrowding and lawbreaking.
But it looks unlikely that the throngs of dipnetters who scoop up salmon with their unwieldy, long-handled nets each summer will face any significant changes or restrictions this summer. It doesn't seem justified, according to one state Board of Fisheries member.
It's hard to begrudge Alaska residents wanting to put food in their freezers, said Bill Brown, the board member. Besides, he said, the thousands of fishermen who crowd at the mouth of the peninsula don't seem to cause long-term damage.
A Juneau sportfisherman appointed to the board by former Gov. Sarah Palin, Brown played a central role in this year's dipnetting debate, chairing the state Board of Fisheries subcommittee that debated roughly 30 dipnetting proposals in recent days. Barring schedule changes, the board is expected to vote today on the proposals. It's just one of many controversial topics the board is tackling about Cook Inlet fisheries during its Feb. 20-March 5 meeting at the Egan Center.
With so many proposals targeting his fishery, Wasilla dipnetter Ken Frederico said he held up a paper target and told the crowd assembled at the board meeting this week, "Will one of you guys please tape this to my back when I leave?"
"If our committee is any indication, I don't expect significant changes (to dipnetting), if there are any," Brown said Wednesday.
Helped along by strong sockeye runs, the Kenai River dipnet harvest has grown steadily in the past 15 years, reaching its highest level last year when fishermen took home an estimated 400,000 salmon. That's about four times the size of the average harvest, according to state records.
Frederico, who runs the South Central Alaska Dipnetters Association, estimates that 80,000 people -- including the family members of dipnet permit holders -- benefit annually from the fisheries.
But Kenai commercial fishermen say they are getting pinched back. It's getting harder for them to maintain their livelihoods due to the fishing time and geographic restrictions that the Board of Fisheries is placing on them, they say.
The end result is that a number of seafood processors have left Cook Inlet, most recently Ocean Beauty, said Dave Martin, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Fishermen Association Inc.
One of his group's proposals would reduce the household limit for all Cook Inlet personal-use salmon fisheries to 10 fish per season. That's half the average number of fish caught per permit in the Kenai River dipnet fishery, according to state statistics.
Martin asserts that the dipnet fishery is "basically unregulated and unenforced" and has caused a lot of problems on the beaches at the Kasilof and Kenai river mouths. Some local criticism has centered on trampling of fragile dunes -- now fenced off -- and garbage strewn on the beach.
High bacteria levels in the river also were a problem last year during the Kenai River dipnet fishery, with state regulators warning people to avoid swimming or the common practice of cleaning their salmon in the beach water. State testing ruled out human waste as the bacteria source. The Kenai mayor suggested to the Peninsula Clarion that the source was fecal matter from the hordes of birds feasting on dipnetters' discarded salmon carcasses.
"It's probably one of the most abused fisheries in the state," Martin said.
But Al Cain, who works for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sportfish division as an enforcement specialist, disagrees with Martin.
"In my opinion, I don't see any more abuse (by dipnetters) than any other fishery. I could support that with many examples," Cain said.
According to statistics that state wildlife troopers compiled for the board this year, troopers and other law officers issued 231 warnings and 123 violation citations to dipnetters last July for various infractions. That's an average year for enforcement activity, the troopers said.
Troopers said they also cited an additional 161 people in the winter of 2009-2010 for dipnet permits violations, such as fishing without meeting Alaska residency requirements.
WHERE TO PUT CROWDS
Brown, the fisheries board member, said he doesn't disagree that the dipnet fishery is getting crowded. But he doesn't think reducing the amount of time that dipnetters can fish or cutting back the number of salmon they can catch will fix that.
Fish and Game officials, who are neutral on the dipnetting proposals, pointed that fewer days of fishing could lead to even more crowding on the beaches.
Brown said he hasn't heard a good solution for the crowding yet.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the region's dominant sportfish advocacy group, says it doesn't favor the proposed restrictions on the dipnetting. It is worried that less dipnetting could mean more Alaskans coming to fish by rod and reel on the river banks that are critical for salmon spawning.
Dipnetters do have an impact but "it's on the beaches and not on the critical habitat for juvenile salmon," said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
His group says it spends thousands of dollars annually on fish habitat protection and restoration projects in the region.
Reach Elizabeth Bluemink at email@example.com or 257-4317.Photos: Kenai River dipnetting (2010)
Video: Kenai River dipnetting (2007)
By ELIZABETH BLUEMINK