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Kenai River group should focus on river, not Cook Inlet setnetters

Todd Smith
OPINION: A healthy Kenai River needs healthy limits, along with creative solutions. But the influential Kenai River Sportfishing Association is too busy trying to destroy Cook Inlet setnetters and dominate statewide fisheries policy to address these issues. Stephen Nowers photo

The executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA), a 501(c)(3) nonprofit “dedicated to ensuring the sustainability of the world's premier sportsfishing river,” recently wrote an editorial in which he appropriately gave his organization credit for leading the successful charge to block the legislative confirmation of Vince Webster to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. In a swift and organized character assassination, KRSA spread false and misleading information vilifying Mr. Webster.  In their attack, they blamed Mr. Webster for (among other things) the Board of Fish's unanimous 7-0 decision to codify the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s (ADFG) new scientifically established and defensible escapement goal for Kenai River Late Run Kings, something that Board of Fish Chair Karl Johnston stated was a “necessity.”

While KRSA claims that their “educational” activities against Mr. Webster were “fact-based and truthful,” many disagree.  In fact, even Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell stated that, “It is disappointing, discouraging, and disheartening when bad information or politics prevent a qualified Alaskan from serving our state.”

As a third-generation Alaskan and fishermen, I am proud of Alaska's fisheries and feel the success of our fisheries benefits everyone. Recent poor returns of king salmon have been a statewide issue, affecting many of us greatly. As a Cook Inlet setnetter and member of a community that depends on a diverse and healthy fishery, I can honestly say that many of my friends, family and neighbors were among some of the hardest hit. After a devastating season, it was very encouraging to get a chance to participate in the public process of the Upper Cook Inlet King Salmon Task Force, led by Board of Fish members Mr. Webster and Mr. Kluberton. It was through this task force that new and enlightening data was published by ADFG that shaped the discussion of Kenai River late-run kings.

While KRSA did manage to suggest a conspiracy between ADFG and the relatively small and politically disorganized group of Cook Inlet eastside setnetters, they left out some very important facts released in these new department reports. First, a historic run reconstruction of Kenai River late-run kings using independent and historically accurate data showed that we have exceeded current escapement goals for these fish 15 of the last 26 years. ADFG indicated in a recent report to the Board of Fish that current below-average Kenai late-run king returns are likely a product of low ocean productivity combined with past years of chronic and substantial overescapement.

ADFG data also indicates this stock shows no signs of overharvest. According to biologists, the relatively low total combined exploitation rate of Kenai River late-run kings (39 percent) means it would be quite difficult to endanger this stock by overharvest, even on a year of low return. New genetic testing shows Cook Inlet eastside setnets only harvest 13 percent of the total Kenai River late-run king return.  Additionally, most biologists agree the only risk this new goal carries is a certain amount of risk to future yield if ADFG is wrong.

Fortunately, all of the data we do have both from this river and other rivers support ADFG’s conclusions, showing that in most Alaskan rivers king salmon are quite productive at low escapement levels and substantially less productive at high escapement levels. If this new Kenai late-run king escapement goal provides more fishing opportunity, it will provide more opportunity for ALL user groups. If it results in less king salmon abundance, we will all suffer.

As Alaskans, it doesn't matter whether we fish for sport, personal use, commercially, or not at all -- we're all in this together.

All available data shows that despite current below-average returns, the Kenai River late-run king stock is still quite healthy and productive. In fact, they are much healthier than the Kenai River in which they spend the most sensitive and important years of their life.

KRSA has been busy. They have created a ruckus over ADFG's scientifically defensible escapement goal. They continue pursuing their founding member's lifelong goal of promoting an ever-increasing sport fishery and eliminating Cook Inlet setnets. During the last Cook Inlet Board of Fish meeting, the board considered 14 proposals submitted by KRSA: eight proposals to increase bag limits on either cohos or kings, three proposals to increase escapement goals in our already overcrowded rivers, and three proposals to increase sportfishing opportunity and further limit commercial fishing opportunity. It's interesting that an organization that prides itself for promoting sustainability spent none of its considerable resources drafting proposals to address any of the numerous, glaring habitat issues on the river it considers home.

While the Cook Inlet "fish wars" wage on, sportfishing participation, commercial guided activity, and powerboat traffic have all been allowed to grow completely unabated on our river. The Kenai exceeds EPA pollution standards for turbidity caused by powerboats in much of our vital king habitat area. Millions of pounds of unprocessed fish waste and dangerous levels of fecal coliform choke our river mouth.  Belugas and harbor seals that once occupied the intertidal area to feed on sockeye have all but vanished, likely due to traffic and pollution from the inriver fisheries. Low king returns have spurred an increase in sport and guided sockeye shore-fishing, which has had significant impacts on our riverbanks -- the most vital king salmon habitat in our river.

Despite the fact that Kenai salmon management plans require it, we have no current data to assess the extent of the negative impacts this fishing pressure has had on riparian habitat. Commercial development along vital stretches of riverbank continues, despite the known negative effects. Last year, in-river fisheries were opened 24 hours a day, despite residents' complaints of noise, pollution and bank erosion due to boat wakes. Fishermen and residents of our community are left wondering when enough is enough.

Surely a healthy river needs some healthy limits, and creative solutions are badly needed. Unfortunately, the organization “dedicated to ensuring the sustainability of the world's premier sportsfishing river” is too busy trying to destroy the setnetters and dominate statewide fisheries policy to address these issues.

Third-generation Alaskan Todd Smith is a sport, personal-use and commercial fisherman. He's a lifelong resident of the city of Kenai.

The preceding commentary was first published by The Cordova Times and is republished here with the author's permission. The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.