The historic Long Island fishing town of Amagansett is about 100 miles from New York City — roughly the distance from Ninilchik to Anchorage. Remarkably, a remnant commercial fishery continued on eastern Long Island into the 1980s, despite mounting pressure from urban growth, pollution and rival sport fishermen.
In 1986, a classic book of non-fiction, “Men’s Lives,” described the struggles of the last New York families to beach-seine for striped bass. Reading Peter Matthiessen’s book in Alaska, where so many of my friends and neighbors were commercial fishermen, it seemed strange that the persistence of an old way of living off the land had not stirred more curiosity and sympathy from within the encroaching metropolis. Alaska seemed a world away.
But now, with surprising suddenness, a longtime fishing way of life may be coming to an end here.
This summer, Kenai Peninsula beaches from Ninilchik to Kenai will be empty of setnets and buoys. Family-run commerial fishing businesses, a major economic force in the Cook Inlet region since territorial days, have been shut down and may not be coming back.
As in New York, the changing demographics of urbanization played a part in Alaska.
Exceptional sockeye runs of the 1980s, when setnetters on east-side beaches recorded a few million-dollar seasons, helped set the stage for Cook Inlet’s modern fish wars. Sportfishermen saw too many prize king salmon in fish totes headed to processors. As more permit-holders migrated to the east-side beaches, new efforts were launched to avoid Kenai River kings.
The state fish board meetings I attended as a reporter crackled with political energy. Sport guides blamed declining king numbers on sneaky commercial guys, while setnetters pointed at the guides’ outboards running over spawning beds.
State electoral politics came increasingly into play as the Anchorage area grew. Hook-and-line fishermen and dipnetters, driving down to get reds for their freezers, lined up with Bob Penney, the late Anchorage property developer, political donor and king salmon advocate. Penney characterized setnets as “curtains of death.” His sumptuous log home on the Kenai River became a pilgrimage destination for Democrats and Republicans alike.
Management tightened up. The 400 or so active setnet permit holders lost some clout. Fishing closures became more closely tied to king salmon counts.
But now it’s Mother Nature driving the dagger home.
The Inlet’s red salmon returns remain strong, but the Kenai kings are in real trouble. Two decades ago, as many as 90,000 late-run kings returned, compared to an average close to 20,000 in recent years. Last year the return was predicted at 16,000 and came in at not quite 14,000 — under the minimum spawning goal of 15,000. This year the late-run forecast is only 13,630. The result is an unprecedented preseason closure for both in-river anglers and the east side setnets.
State biologists point out that salmon are resilient and the Kenai kings have seen big cycles in the past. A surprising return could reopen fishing this year. But the current decline, darkly, seems tied to failing chinook runs all over Alaska and the West Coast.
Last month, California announced a complete closure of commercial and sport fishing for salmon. Biologists there attribute the collapse of chinook runs to three main factors: the re-engineering of the state’s river systems to accommodate cities and agriculture, the effects on spawning of a prolonged drought, and poor ocean survival.
In a vivid account of California’s problems, the New York Times last month rigorously attributed the latter two factors to climate change, and then tacked on an explanatory clause that seldom finds its way into discussions of fishery declines in our oil state — “primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.”
Healthy habitat, a big problem in California, is not a major issue in Alaska. Our salmon watersheds, unafflicted by dams and irrigation ditches, remain robust — a fact Alaska politicians continue to trumpet as they push for new open pit mines and wilderness roads. Shoreline rearing habitat on the Kenai River was once in danger of being “loved to death” — trampled by the boots of fishermen, hardened off by homeowners — until protection efforts in the 1990s brought commercial and sport fishermen together. It was a rare victory, in Alaska, for community interest in a healthy natural world over private-property rights.
But problems caused by climate change do appear to be affecting Alaska’s king salmon runs. Global air temperatures, which have gone up more than two degrees since 1900, have risen even more in the far north. Heat waves are being linked to reduced success in spawning streams in the sub-Arctic. And the biggest problem for salmon here, scientists say, seems to be ocean survival, at a time of fast-rising summer sea-surface temperatures. The Gulf of Alaska has warmed 3.5 degrees in the past century.
Oceans have absorbed 90% of the atmosphere’s increased heat since the industrial age. Scientists struggle to comprehend how steadily rising temperatures in the North Pacific affect current circulation, food distribution, and acidification, with an overlay of natural temperature cycles (and increasing competition from hatchery fish) further complicating the picture. Much remains unknown.
In the meantime, though, a warm-water El Niño pattern appears to be forming in the Pacific for the first time since 2016. Consider: King salmon returns from the Aleutians to San Francisco Bay have plunged during a cool-water phase that is coming to an end.
Ocean survival, like any act of God, has traditionally been considered beyond the reach of fishery managers. They can only control harvests when surviving fish return. These days, Alaska’s commercial fishermen — from the trawlers of the Bering Sea to the trollers of Southeast — are under heavy pressure for intercepting troubled salmon runs.
In a steady-state world, it’s possible that urban growth and competition would have eventually exerted enough such pressure to ban salmon gillnetters from Cook Inlet beaches, just as similar forces squeezed out the striped-bass beach-seiners of Amagansett. Fishermen felt the odds were being stacked against them. Traditions of summer life on the Kenai Peninsula hung in the balance.
But the sudden disappearance of Cook Inlet’s setnets this summer is due to something new and different. Inconvenient as it may be for Alaska politicians who propose to address global warming by increasing Alaska oil production, the historic fishing families of the Kenai Peninsula have been displaced not so much by urban pressure as by climate change — primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels.
Homer author Tom Kizzia covered the Cook Inlet “fish wars” for the Anchorage Daily News, starting in the 1990s. He was recently named Historian of the Year by the Alaska Historical Society.
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