Jampacked Kenai River leads to boating accidents among floating dipnetters

Sean Doogan
Mason Lloyd of Kenai Parks and Recreation combs the beach to collect dead fish and deposit them in the water during the Kenai River dipnetting season earlier this month. Bill Roth

COMING SUNDAY IN WE ALASKANS MAGAZINE:  A city of dipnetters springs up at the mouth of the Kenai River. Call it Salmonville. 


The Kenai River personal use fishery is winding down, with less than a week remaining. Not far from the Kenai city center, thousands of Alaskans have gathered to fill their freezers with red salmon. And although the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's sonar count has shown that more than a half-million reds have already entered the river, dipnetting has been hit or miss.

"The fish haven't been showing up in high numbers," said Alaska Wildlife Trooper Lt. Paul McConnell. "We don't know if we've had the peak or not but they have been going well."

The fishery will close at 11 p.m. July 31, completing the three-week run of what's become the most popular sport or personal-use fishery in Alaska.  

The reds are a sought-after resource, and each year a diverse group of fishermen try to get as many as they legally can. Commercial fishermen set driftnets in Cook Inlet. Beach setnetters use long gillnets attached to the shore to catch their share.

Crowds of up to 15,000

That may be harder to do now, after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game shut down all east-side Cook Inlet setnetters and moved the drift fleet farther offshore in an effort to protect what may be the weakest run of Kenai king salmon since the department began counting them.

Some weekends, as many as 15,000 people show up with long-handled dipnets, seeking reds. All that competition for salmon can bring about disagreements and arguments. For dipnetters who work from boats, the crowded conditions can be dangerous. 

The 3.5-mile section of the Kenai River designated for dipnet fishing can attract as many as 500 boats. When the fish are running, people's excitement can cause problems in the tight quarters. Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, who was out on the water last week, said he was appalled at the number of people driving their boats too fast and not paying attention.

Several collisions have already been reported. Koch said a family of five was sent into the water after another craft hit their boat. After being pulled out of the water, several members of the family required minor medical attention at the local hospital, according to Koch.

Another boat was swamped when a larger boat went by too fast, creating a large wake that capsized the smaller boat. No one was hurt but a dog that may have been trapped under the overturned boat perished, said Koch, who estimates that 20 percent of the boaters in the area were driving dangerously. The close calls and minor collisions have prompted Koch to seek a meeting with the Alaska State Troopers and U.S. Coast Guard to see if the agencies can do anything to make the Kenai River safer next year.

"I hope it's ignorance, because the thought that many people would be discourteous would be appalling," Koch said.

Less fish waste

About 90 percent of dipnetters on the Kenai River live outside the Kenai Peninsula, and sometimes the invasion by dipnetters can create hard feelings. Photos on Facebook of hundreds of fish carcasses lining the shore of the city's North Beach have caused some residents to decry what they call the trashing of the Kenai beaches with up to 1.6 million pounds of fish waste a year.

But Koch said that the pictures circulating on social media can be misleading. Koch said a city ordinance passed last year carries a $150 fine for failing to throw fish waste into the water, and that's all but stopped the beach-dumping practice, helping to keep the beaches relatively clean.

"They are doing everything they are supposed to be doing," Koch said about the dipnetters working the city's North and South Kenai River beaches.

But throwing fish waste into the Inlet, which sees some of the strongest tides in the world, might not flush the carcasses into the briny deep for good. Waves, wind and tides can bring many of them back. Some carcasses wash up along the waterline after high tide each day. That is why the city of Kenai cleans the beach each morning and evening with two tractors pulling harvesting rakes that move the fish waste back down to the water so it can be pulled into the Inlet on the next tide.

"If there are a lot of fish in and the conditions are right, there may be an unsightly collection of fish waste for a period of time until our fish rakers move that waste back down the beach," Koch said.

CORRECTION: This story was corrected on July 26, 2014. The word "tons'' was mistakenly used where the word "pounds'' was meant in describing how much fish waste dipnetters are believed to dump into the river. The maximum amount is about 800 tons or 1.6 million pounds.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com