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Opinion: Enough! Kenai dipnetters need to learn the rules, respect the resource

Craig Medred
Gulls wait for fish scraps as dipnetters work the mouth of the Kenai River last week. Bill Roth

KENAI -- Alaska's most ignorant fisheries are now underway at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

"Why is the river running the wrong way?" a Yuppie-ish woman in spanking new waders asked as a near 30-foot Cook Inlet tide came surging back into the river's mouth on a sunny Monday afternoon.

Ah, because the tide is coming in?

This might all be funny if it was only about silly questions. But it isn't. It's also about responsible use of Alaska resources.

One would think that before setting off to kill things, the men and women new to what the 49th state calls "personal use" dipnet fisheries would at least learn what it is they are legally allowed to kill. One would be wrong.

A co-worker, a first-time dipnetter, the other day confessed that on his outing to the mouth of the Kenai to fish for red salmon earlier this month, he pulled in what he recognized as a Dolly Varden char. A friend who was with him immediately pounced on it and beat it to death.

This is what one does at the river. But the dipnet fishery is for salmon, not char or rainbow trout, and the dipnetter, recognizing that his friend had just killed a prohibited species, did what was deemed appropriate.

The fish was thrown back into the water before anyone noticed and had a chance to make trouble.

As someone who grew up close to the land -- and I grew up almost too close to the land -- waste of wild resources is a serious crime. Had my poor, late father caught me doing something like this, the result would have been hard labor for at least a month.

Students of nature, of course, learn that there is really no such thing as waste. Nature wastes nothing. It's why we can excuse the wasteful eating habits of bears and wolves, who sometimes leave a significant portion of their kills uneaten.

But we are not bears and wolves. Humans are supposed to act in a more civilized manner. They are supposed to practice something called "conservation," which sadly appears sometimes to be a dying idea in the 49th state.

On the Kenai and Kasilof, the basics of conservation would entail a dipnetter at least knowing the difference between the salmon he, or she, can legally kill -- those being reds or sockeyes, of which there are plenty -- and the salmon that need to be released from the net unharmed -- those being kings or chinooks, of which there are today few.

Sadly, one cannot count on dipnetters to know the difference between salmon and other species of fish, let alone between salmon and salmon. Most dipnetters probably -- probably -- could tell a salmonid from a shark, but beyond that the differences seem hard for many to sort.

A Kasilof dipnetter recently reported witnessing five kings killed there and then tossed back into the river after the dipnetters were informed they had just killed a prohibited species. The report could not be independently confirmed, but Alaska Department of Fish and Game regional sport fish supervisor James Hasbrouck said there is no doubt this sort of things happens.

"I've heard of that," he said. "I've heard anecdotal reports of that."

Chinook carcasses have been found on the Kenai beach. Alaska Wildlife Troopers do some enforcement there, but trooper resources are limited. And given the choice between policing commercial openings, where one fishermen with a gillnet can illegally catch thousands of fish in an hour, or the inefficient dipnet fisheries, it's obvious where enforcement resources need to be directed.

Some fix other than enforcement might be necessary here.

Since Fish and Game is considering entering the Internet Age and moving more licensing and permitting online, maybe it's time to update the dipnet permit process to require dipnetters to at least pass a fish identification test before they can get a permit.

Maybe if they actually knew how to tell a pink salmon from a red salmon, they wouldn't whack the former thinking it a midget sockeye, or pound the life out of a chinook thinking it a sockeye with freckles.

The black spots on the back and tail of a king makes it easy to tell from a silver, spotless sockeye. Or at least it is easy to tell from a sockeye if you have any idea of how to identify salmon.

Unfortunately, for all too many dipnetters, all salmon look alike. There are big ones, and there are little ones, and that's it.

Another first-time dipnetter confessed he caught a big sockeye -- the fish can go to 14 or 15 pounds -- and thought he had a king. He immediately killed it. That's what one does in the personal-use fishery.

Kill them all and sort them out later.

It's all about filling the freezer. Conservation rules?

C'mon, that sort of silliness is for sport fishermen. You know, the people with rods and reels. The people who waste time learning about fish instead of just getting out there and killing fish.

The dipnet fisheries weren't always like this, of course. Those who've been around these fisheries for decades, whether on the Copper River or the Kenai Peninsula, can remember when most dipnetters were knowledgeable outdoor people.

This has steadily changed as increasing numbers of residents in The Entitlement State have come to view the Kenai as the place Everyman or Everywoman should be able to go to fill their freezer with salmon for the winter even if they only eat a small portion of it and the rest goes to waste in the spring.

All of which is another issue that warrants some discussion, but let's not get into that. We'll save that for another day, and end this with the words of another dipnetter waving a net in the air with a starry flounder caught in it:

"What's this? A baby halibut?"

Not quite, but close. It is a flatfish with both eyes on the same side of its body.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.