The Kenai River personal-use fishery, in which thousands of Alaskans haul home coolers full of salmon steaks and fillets, is arguably the state’s most popular dip netting destination. For three weeks each summer, families from across the state invade the city of Kenai for fun and fish. They also cause headaches for city officials and residents, scattering fish carcasses across the two beaches at the mouth of the glacial river.
Liz Villarreal and her husband dip net in the river’s waters wearing wetsuits. They still managed to get sick last year; it’s easy to cut your hand when filleting fish, so getting ill from such “bacteria laden” water is easy whether in a wetsuit or waders, she said via email. The prevalence of bacteria is caused by the fish waste that attracts warm blooded animals.
City officials have had enough, and this summer they'll crack down harder on waste, requiring users to dump fish remains back into the water and fining fishermen who ignore the law.
Over the past decade, Kenai, population 7,218, has absorbed a summer explosion of up to 15,000 visitors hoping to take advantage of an easy catch. With the increase of visitors, the local government has struggled to manage the fishery’s “secondary impacts” of trash and fish waste, said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch.
Dumping fish waste on the beach was already prohibited. But on April 17, the Kenai City Council passed an ordinance meant to strengthen the management of the fishery  and clarify where fish waste can be legally dumped.
“(The previous ordinance) was written so broadly it was never actually enforced,” Koch said. “The city wants the fish waste in the water rather than people putting it anywhere.”
The ordinance reduces the fine for violators from $500 to $150, a move recommended by the city’s police chief. The change brings the penalty for dumping fish waste in line with similar city fines. And Koch said the reduced amount strikes a balance between being a significant fine for violators while allowing the city to avoid costly court battles each time a citation is written.
There’s no desire to collect a single penny in fines, he added.
“We are striving for compliance, not enforcement action. The task of the six seasonal enforcement officers that we’ll have monitoring the river’s north and south beaches will be to remind people where their fish waste needs to go," he said. "Hopefully, we don’t end up writing any citations.”
Villarreal said she’s very pleased but wary of the fines. The fines merely strengthen an existing law, she said, but tidewaters often push carcasses back on the beach. Dip netters get angry when fish guts are thrown in front of their nets, too.
She said she’s interested to see if the fine is steep enough to stop the mass of fish waste blanketing the beaches with red, silty blotches. “$150 plus all of your fish is still a deal,” Villarreal said.
In early January, the city council convened work sessions on the fishery -- the dipnet season is from July 10-31 . Koch presented six options to the council, which varied from doing nothing to building fish-cleaning stations along the beaches.
In the end, the council opted for a measured approach focused on increasing efforts to move fish waste to the tideline during low tides more frequently. The other options are more expensive, but a renewed effort to dispose of fish waste comes with its own costs.
The city will place trash containers along both beaches and hire two additional temporary enforcement officers. It will also purchase a tractor and rake to speed the process of pushing fish waste to tideline. There will be more beach signage and possibly four-wheelers for the officers. The tab: $172,350.
Many Kenai residents at the meetings pushed for harsher restrictions. Fed up with what one resident dubbed the burgeoning “Woodstock of Alaska,” they wanted visitors to take any salmon caught home whole. At least two members of the six member council, and Kenai Mayor Pat Porter, originally sided with the residents, arguing the state needed to take responsibility for its fishery.
But concerns about dip-netters stopping along the 160-mile road between Kenai and Anchorage, Alaska's largest city, to the north of Kenai, to gut and dump their fish remains caused the city to choose another option. The Kenai Peninsula Borough, which governs five cities and other unincorporated communities on the Peninsula, believed an overwhelming amount of fish waste during the dipnet season would have broken its limit for fish waste at the Soldotna landfill if dipnetters were required haul whole fish off the beaches.
Last year, the state issued some 38,000 personal-use fishery permits. The permits are issued for households, and an average of 3.6 people use each permit, which makes the estimated total number of users about 136,800. The permits allow Alaskans to dipnet at the Kenai, Kasilof, and Copper rivers, but the majority of fish slayers choose the Kenai River. Based on polling conducted at Kenai’s fee shacks, 93 percent of the users don’t live on the Peninsula.
The Kenai River fishery is regulated by the state. Kenai owns the land but plays the role of land manager, Koch said. The city provides 12 to 16 portable bathrooms, limited parking and camping opportunities. Kenai collects camping and parking fees but cannot charge for access to the beach. Last summer, the city spent $482,070 on managing the fishery and lost $8,909.
Increasing the frequency of raking the waste into the Kenai River will positively impact the fishing area in two ways, Koch said. First, it will make the beach more aesthetically pleasing, because no one “likes hanging around rotten fish.” Second, the fish carcasses attract warm-blooded animals, like birds and dogs. Those animals are the source of a fecal bacteria found in the river. Improved cleaning of the beach could limit the bacteria, according to the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation.
Ultimately, the changes to the city’s dipnet management plan are an interim solution. Koch said he hopes to revisit the issue.
Contact Jerzy Shedlock at jerzy(at)alaskadispatch.com