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In dip net drama, there's more than one side to the story

Craig Medred
Loren Holmes photo

Too many Kenai River dip-netters are slobs, pigs, miscreants, call them what you want. There is no debating this. The evidence is obvious to anyone who visits the mouth of the river during the dip netting season in July.

And many in the community of Kenai are once more upset.

When the Kenai City Council held a hearing to discuss the dip net fishery at the start of the month, "a parade of concerned citizens spoke on what issues need to be addressed," reported the Peninsula Clarion, the local newspaper for the Kenai-Soldotna area.

The usual complaints were heard: Dip-netters litter, leave human waste on the beach, drive their boats like lunatics upriver from the mouth where dip netting is legal from boats, and seemingly worst of all, catch more fish than the limit allows.

Or, in the case of nonresidents, catch fish they are not allowed. By law, personal-use dip netting is limited to Alaska residents. It's the urban Alaska form of what is elsewhere in the state called "subsistence fishing."

The only difference here is that the drying-rack-loading and freezer-filling subsistence fisheries get a priority over commercial fishing while the personal-use fisheries don't.

What makes this especially worthy of note is that any discussion of the Kenai dip net fishery plays out against the backdrop of the Cook Inlet commercial fishery. Kenai-based commercial fishermen, a fair number of whom live in the area, don't like the dip-netters, a large number of whom descend on the river from Anchorage, catching what the members of the commercial fishery consider "their" fish.

As a result, there are always folks in the Kenai area trying to stir the political pot of anguish about the dip net fishery.

"Garland Blanchard, a fishing guide from Homer, said he came across three cases of people from the Lower 48 that had at least four times the allotted limit of sockeye salmon. He met a guy from Las Vegas on a plane that showed him a picture of 500 pounds of sockeyes he caught from the Kenai River," the Clarion reported. 

"'These are nonresidents taking fish out of our river,' Blanchard said. 'We have a serious issue with enforcement.'"

Blanchard might well be doing some guiding these days; many in the state do. But back in 2008, when the New York Times was writing about Alaskans pocketing hefty checks from the Exxon Valdez oil spill settlement, he was a "third-generation (commercial) fisherman." And state records show him and his boat registered among the state's "Fish Processors and Buyers" in recent years.

So when Blanchard starts talking about over-harvest, there is some reason to wonder whether it is real or propaganda. Much the same can be said of much of the catch information tossed about as gossip.

There are, no doubt, people fishing illegally. There are, without question, people catching more than the liberal limit of 25 fish per permit holder with an extra 10 for each member of the family. Arguably worse, though, are the many dip-netters who catch more salmon than they can eat over the course of the winter.

If, as an Alaskan, you know many dip-netters, you probably know someone who fits this category. They are overcome by the bloodlust along the Kenai in July, and they net and smack dead 25 or 35 or 55 fish when all their family is likely to eat is 20. Too many frozen Kenai River sockeye salmon go to the landfill in June as the July opening of the fishery nears.

This should not happen. Properly cared for, vacuum packed and frozen, these fish will keep at least a year. At worst, the state's food banks should be getting big contributions come summertime. Or maybe some Alaska dog mushers. Huskies don't care if salmon are a little freezer-burned. They're still happy to have a high-protein, high-fat meal.

But that said, let's get real here. Even if some non-resident dip netted 500 pounds of sockeye, it would take him days. A commercial drift gill netter could illegally harvest that and more in one set of a net outside fishing boundaries. So when it comes to enforcement, it's obvious where state efforts need to be directed.

The commercial fisheries have proven they can choke off the entire run of fish to the Kenai. The dip-netters have demonstrated that even when they're going at it full bore, they can't check the run of sockeye into the river. No matter what happened in the dip net fishery last summer, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game reported a sockeye escapement of nearly 1.4 million in the river last year.

Escapement is the number of fish getting past first the commercial fishery and then the dip net fishery to fin their way toward the spawning grounds. The upper goal for the Kenai return is 1.2 million of these fish. Commercial fishermen regularly fret about overescapement -- escapement in excess of 1.2 million fish -- potentially lowering future returns.

If you buy that argument, an argument much debated in scientific circles, we shouldn't be worrying about nonresidents catching "our" fish, we should be encouraging them to catch fish to help get the escapement down to that 1.2 million cap.

Of course, we're never going to do that -- none of us -- because we're Alaskans and on one thing we can agree: You need to spend at least one winter here to officially qualify. That's why, unlike other states, there's a requirement you live in the state without leaving for one full calendar year before you can legally obtain a resident sport fishing and hunting license or dip netting permit.

If you want to catch a whole lot of fish without doing this, you must become a commercial fisherman. There is no similar residency requirement on commercial fishing permits. You need not live here for a year ever. You can fly in from the Lower 48, catch your fish every summer, and retreat to America in the fall. Many, especially in the state's most valuable fisheries, do.

The good thing that can be said about them is that before leaving they do deliver their fish to local processors and in that way boost the Alaska economy. Whether they boost it more than that nonresident bandit from Las Vegas, real or imagined, flying north on a commercial airline, spending money to stay in Alaska until he catches his fish, and flying out, who knows?

Whichever the case, the latter guy is breaking the law, and he should be caught and punished. Dip-netters could help their cause greatly by paying attention when they're on the river, chatting up the people next to them, and reporting suspicious fishermen to the authorities.

Even more than that, though, dip-netters could help their case by cleaning up their act. Most of the complaints about litter, filth and shoddy seamanship have merit. Too many dip-netters fail to treat with proper respect not only the fish but their environment.

Some of these dip-netters are just ignorant. Some can't even seem to figure out you shouldn't pitch a tent in the middle of the main access route to the beach. But some are willful in their disregard for everything but getting the fish they want.

Bruce Friend, who owns property near the mouth of the river, "likened the crowds to a gold rush with a greedy mentality to catch all the fish they can and not bother cleaning up the waste," the Clarion reported. That description is in many ways too close to the truth.

Dip-netters might take note, because if they don't start cleaning up their act, someone will clean it up for them. And fixing the problems here shouldn't be that hard. The number of responsible, well-behaved dip-netters vastly outnumbers the minority of miscreants. Improvement is largely just a matter of the former stepping up and saying to the latter: "Knock it off! What you're doing could screw this up for everyone."

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch. Contact Craig Medred at craig@alaskadispatch.com.