Long-handled nets in hand, hordes of anglers prepare to storm Kenai beaches

KENAI -- Aside from a few bored seagulls, the sandy beach at the mouth of the Kenai River was almost empty Tuesday afternoon. A young couple walked their dog near the surf beneath a blanket of high clouds split here and there by streaks of blue. Across Cook Inlet, the peak of Redoubt Volcano stood sentinel over the tranquil scene, its iconic peak the focal point of a view that's as central to the city's identity as Mount Ranier is to Seattle or the pyramids are to Cairo.

Suddenly, the tranquility was broken by the loud beep-beep-beep of a backhoe's back-up alarm, the arrival of heavy equipment moving concrete Jersey barriers signaling the beginning of an assault on the beach that will soon culminate in an all-out invasion by tens of thousands of salmon-crazed soldiers.

Soon the beaches will run red with blood.

The annual personal-use sockeye fishery at the mouth of the river has become something of a tradition among Alaska residents, who descend on this city of about 7,000 en masse each July in hopes of filling freezers with their allotment of bright red salmon fillets. But while the event is seen by many participants as a fun frolic that's equal parts summer camp and fish camp, the City of Kenai sees things a bit differently. For the people responsible for managing and maintaining the massive fishery, July means nonstop planning, problem solving and personnel management.

"On our busiest day we may have 15,000 people on the beach," said Rick Koch, Kenai's city manager.

Managing the masses

Sitting behind a cluttered deck inside Kenai City Hall, Koch spoke at length earlier this week about the challenges the city faces in planning and managing the fishery, which last year saw 35,989 permit holders -- a record -- harvest an estimated 379,823 sockeye. Behind him, a trio of photos of Redoubt hung in a row beneath a giant aerial view of the city, which sits perched on high bluffs above the river's wide winding mouth.

Although Alaska's personal-use dipnet fisheries are run by the state, the most popular and most productive of them takes place entirely within the Kenai city limits. That means the burden of dealing with the thousands of dippers -- most of whom are from other parts of Alaska -- falls on the small city.


"We own the beach," Koch said.

Over the years, the fishery has become a huge part of the city government's operation. Roughly three percent of Kenai's annual budget is devoted to managing impacts from the three-week fishery. In 2014, the city spent $411,509 on the fishery and collected $440,572 in revenues. The remainder is kept in case purchases need to be made or as a hedge against a poor salmon run. If the fishery is closed for a significant portion of time, the city will lose money on contracts that must still be honored.

"One year we lost $100,000," Koch said.

Like Woodstock, with nets

The fishery touches virtually every city department, from police to fire to public works to parks and recreation. Koch said extra enforcement is needed -- the city hires six temporary enforcement officers -- to keep traffic flowing and tempers calm during peak fishing days. There are dozens of Dumpsters and porta-potties to rent and service, heavy concrete barriers to move and parking fee shacks to staff and maintain. Every night, the parks department uses a tractor to rake up discarded fish waste.

It's a burden the city has borne since 1996, when the state established the personal-use fishery granting each Alaskan "head of household" 25 sockeye salmon and 10 flounders, plus 10 more sockeye for each additional person in the household. However, aside from a couple grants over the years, Koch said the state has been willing to let Kenai handle the invasion on its own.

"It's frustrating that the state refuses to partner with us," Koch said.

Personal-use salmon fisheries also take place on the Copper River near Chitina, the Kasilof River on the Kenai Peninsula, China Poot Bay across Kachemak Bay from Homer and Fish Creek in the Mat-Su, but the Kenai is the largest and most accessible to the majority of Alaska residents.

Kenai mayor Pat Porter said the city has been forced to take a proactive approach to managing the fishery, which includes shore-based dipnetting sites on the north and south beaches as well as a boat-based fishery between the Warren Ames Bridge and the city dock. She said the fishery isn't something the city asked for, but tries to manage as best it can.

On a busy day, the beaches are lined with people stretching long-handled dipnets out into the wide, silty river. A good day can net dozens of fish, with shoreside processing lines set up to gut, fillet and package the salmon. Entire families make a week out of the operation, with each person doing a specific job. Every year, a tremendous amount of waste is generated.

"It's kind of a Woodstock that we never really asked for," she said on Wednesday.

In the early years of the fishery, Porter said Kenai was ill prepared for the issues that would arise. Dumpsters overflowed, there weren't enough bathroom facilities and fish waste turned the beach into a horror movie. But over the years, Kenai has become more efficient at dealing with those concerns.

"We just have to make sure it's organized and our residents are protected from garbage and waste on our beach," Porter said.

A regulation change two years ago that forced dipnetters to discard their carcasses into the water made a big difference in the smell, she said, as has the city's decision to rake the beach each night between the time the fishery closes at 11 p.m. and reopens at 6 a.m.

"Could it be better? Absolutely. But we really are getting a handle on those things," she said.

Vacation destination

City council meetings have frequently been the scene of debates on how to best deal with dipnetting, and city IT director Daniel Castimore said he thinks Kenai residents have a decidedly mixed attitude toward the fishery.

"I think if you asked most people, they'd say they just want it to go away," he said.

Castimore said the fishery has become more than a way to fill freezers and morphed into a summertime getaway.


"A lot of people treat it like their vacation," he said.

Koch said Kenai residents frequently ask that something be done to give residents a break on fees to access the beach, but the city's hands are tied.

"I've got three separate legal opinions that say it can't be done," he said. "We can't treat people with a 99611 zip code (Kenai) different than anyone else."

According to the city's annual dipnet fishery report, 59 percent of dipnetters in 2014 came from Anchorage and 14 percent traveled from the Mat-Su. Just six percent came from Kenai itself, and 83 percent identified themselves as from zip codes outside the Kenai Peninsula Borough.

Porter said the city tries to walk a fine line between welcoming those visitors and ensuring local residents aren't overwhelmed by the traffic and crowding on the beaches and at the city dock.

"We want them to go away having enjoyed coming to Kenai, but we also want to make sure our residents enjoy them coming here," she said.

Some of the measures put in place over the years include prohibiting camping on the north beach beyond a marker near the access road and installing cameras at fee stations. Castimore said he's installed software that can track things like the busiest hours at each fee shack and where dipnetters are coming from. The city can then use that data to move staff around to better handle with what can be as many as 60 vehicles per hour per shack.

"It's much more efficient," he said.


Another change that's been made is to the fees. It's still $20 for day-use parking (5 a.m. to midnight) and $45 for overnight parking at the beach, but the boat launch fee at the city dock is up to $35. Camping is $25, and tents must remain in designated areas.

Koch also said people need to stay off the ecologically-sensitive sand dunes and eroding bluffs.

The busiest weekends are always the second and third weekends of the fishery -- July 17-19 and July 24-26 this year. Mid-July tends to be the peak of the run.

The most fish ever taken during the fishery were 537,765 harvested in 2011.

This year the city moved its north beach fee shacks farther up the hill on Spruce Street and added another lane in hopes of improving traffic flow at the beach. They've also added credit card readers at every location, and Koch said he's hopeful more people will take advantage of the convenience of cashless transactions.

"We'd love it if everybody used credit cards," he said.

Dangerous waters

Despite the improvements, traffic jams and long lines will always be a part of the fishery. Although the south beach off Cannery Road has never run out of room, the north beach off Spruce Street has only limited parking. Also, the city dock closes for as much as four hours during extreme low tides, which can produce a long line of boats and trailers alongside Bridge Access Road.

Kenai police chief Gus Sandahl said his officers are constantly dealing with traffic control during the fishery, which runs through July 31.

"On peak days, it might be the busiest road on the central Kenai Peninsula," he said.

Sandahl said he watches traffic cameras and tries to have an officer on scene before things get too hectic. He will often patrol the city dock area himself to make sure no larger issues arise.

"When it's on the verge of being a problem I'll camp out there," he said.

The six seasonal enforcement officers deal with things like writing parking tickets and people driving on prohibited areas of the beach. During busy weekends he'll also assign a regular officer to the north beach to provide a visible police presence.


"They'll probably spend 95 percent of their time on north beach," he said. "It's a very busy place."

There are also concerns on the south beach, where conflicts can arise between dipnetters and private property owners. The city wants to build a new access road through city-owned wetlands to mitigate those issues, but the road is currently being held up by the Army Corps of Engineers due to permitting issues.

Despite the large crowds, crime and disorderly conduct are actually quite rare, Sandahl said. Officers regularly visit fee stations to collect cash and ward off thieves, who were a major concern in the early days of the fishery. Last year the police responded to 150 dipnet-related calls for service, but most were for minor things like parking disputes and 911 misdials.

"It's typically not a real rowdy group," he said.

That doesn't mean there aren't major public safety issues that crop up. Last year police dealt with two DUIs, four vehicle crashes, two thefts and five boat accidents.

It's that last category that most frightens Sandahl.


"After what happened last year, yeah it's a big concern for me," he said. In 2014, two boating mishaps could have turned into tragedies. In one case, a boat swamped, sending a family into the river. In another, two boats collided, sending multiple people into the drink.

The boat-based fishery stretches about 3.5 miles from the bridge to a point just upstream of the city dock. The river is also utilized by commercial fishing vessels and its width and depth fluctuates wildly with the tides. Sandahl said those conditions -- when combined with hundreds of small boats zipping up, down and across the river -- are a recipe for disaster.

"Please operate your boat safely and look out for other vessels out there," he advised.

The police and fire department will patrol a no-wake zone between river miles 2 and 5. The Coast Guard and Alaska Wildlife Troopers also will regularly make the rounds. But Sandahl said the best way to stay safe on the water is to wear a life jacket and be aware of everything that's going on around your boat.

"You can easily get fixated on all the reds that are hitting the dipnets but that boat captain has to be paying attention," he said.

Dipnetting rules are typically enforced by Fish and Game personnel, Alaska Wildlife Troopers or State Parks Rangers. Fish and Game biologist Jason Pawluk said dipnetters need to keep several regulations in mind or risk fines or the loss of personal-use fishing privileges.

Fish may not be removed from the fishing grounds without being recorded and having both lobes of their tail fins clipped. Pawluk said that means before heading to the parking lot, pulling a boat onto a trailer or even tossing the fish into a cooler.

"If you're contacted in the parking lot it's a citable offense," he said.

Dipnetters must also have a valid permit, which this year can be obtained online at adfg.alaska.gov. Permits are free to Alaska residents; non residents cannot participate in any aspect of the fishery.

Economic benefit?

Dipnetting isn't all enforcement and crowds. Porter and Koch said July is always the busiest month for local businesses.

"Our local retailers, whether they're restaurants or grocery stores or hotels, they do benefit," Porter said.

Koch said he doesn't know how much of the city's summertime tourism revenue comes from dipnetters, but he suspects it's a sizable portion.

"Year after year it's the busiest month," he said.

A couple businesses have even sprung up around the fishery. Roadside dipnet sellers offer custom-made nets, and at least one fishing guide has turned to dipping as a way of diversifying. Kenny Bingaman operates a dipnet guide service, offering eight-hour boat trips on the Kenai for $225 per person. Bingaman said he prefers dipnet guiding over king salmon guiding because he's always taking fellow Alaskans out on the water.

"I'd rather see residents get their fish," he said.

Bingaman said business is brisk, and he no longer spends much time fishing for king salmon -- although he did take clients out on the king opener July 1. Aside from a desire to help residents get their fish, the dipnet fishery offers a way to make money during poor king years. He's thankful for the personal-use fishery and thinks more sport fishing guides will take up dipnet guiding as personal use continues to grow in popularity. Since boat-based dipping is easier than from the beach, he said, more and more clients will be willing to fork over a couple hundred bucks for the convenience he offers.

"They're going to see more and more guys doing this," said Bingaman.

Bingaman said he blames Cook Inlet commercial fishermen for the decline in Kenai River kings. The 63-year-old Soldotna resident said he's been forced to do more dipnet guiding because the Kenai isn't what it used to be a decade or more ago, when he helped 11 different clients haul in Kenai kings that weighed more than 80 pounds.

"Every human being has got the greed factor in 'em," he said.

Contact reporter Matt Tunseth at mtunseth@alaskadispatch.com

Matt Tunseth

Matt Tunseth is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News and former editor of the Alaska Star.