An Outdoor View: Long Live the King

On Aug. 8, I attended the Wild and Scenic Film Festival in Kenai. One of the films really raised my hackles.

“Long Live the King,” a Fly Out Media video, is sponsored by makers of high-end gear and apparel, among them Orvis, Patagonia, and Smith Optics. The “stars” are mainly lodge owners and fishing guides, bemoaning the fact that Alaska’s king salmon runs have been declining for several years. Half of the film is something-has-to-be-done whining that has little or nothing to do with the likely cause of the poor runs, which is some unknown change in the ocean. The other half is anglers catching king salmon with fly-fishing gear and releasing them with a backdrop of Alaskan wilderness.

I’ve caught king salmon on fly tackle and light tackle in the past, so I’m not without some knowledge and experience on the subject. What galls me about this film is that it encourages fishing for kings while Alaska’s king runs are at a historical low. Worse, it encourages catch-and-release fishing for them with fly-fishing tackle.

Studies have found that blood lactic acid levels increase in fish due to the stress of being captured, and that these levels increase for up to four hours after the event. If critical levels are reached, the fish die. In other words, that salmon you catch and release “unharmed” can die of lactic acid poisoning hours after you hooked it.

It has been known for decades that quickly bringing in a hooked fish minimizes the build-up of lactic acid. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s brochure, “How To Be An Ethical Angler,” urges anglers to “Use strong fishing line to bring fish in quickly.” That may be true, but strong fishing line doesn’t bring a fish in very quickly if one end is attached to a 9-weight fly rod and the other end to a 30-pound salmon.

The International Federation of Fly Fishers’ “Tips for Catch & Release” brochure advises anglers to “Use tackle and line strong enough to bring fish in quickly.” This tip presents Federation members with a quandary. With the occasional exception, large salmon can’t be brought in very quickly with fly fishing or other light tackle.

To me, knowingly using tackle that increases the stress during the capture, thereby risking the fish’s life, seems more than a little unethical.

Even more than the risk of killing the occasional king salmon by “playing” it too long, it irks me that these guides and lodge owners waving the conservation banner are encouraging anglers to come to Alaska and have fun with fish that are right on the edge of sustainability as a species. They aren’t doing it for the fish, but to keep people fishing. If people don’t fish, they don’t buy gear, go on guided trips or stay at lodges. Profit, not conservation, was the reason for making “Long Live the King.”

When salmon aren’t abundant, when they’re having trouble just sustaining, no ethical angler can possibly justify making their survival even more difficult. And no business or organization, no matter how conservation-oriented it claims to be, can justify heaping even more pressure on salmon by attracting even more anglers to “conserve” them by fishing for them.

It wouldn’t bother me as much if these people with money in the fishing game weren’t so hypocritical. I wish they’d just come right out and say, “To conserve these salmon that are having trouble surviving, we’re going to have some fun with ‘em, put ‘em through yet another life-or-death struggle before they spawn. Hell, we’ll even mess with ‘em right while they’re spawning. By using fly rods and barbless hooks, we’ll make it more sporting, give ‘em more of a chance to get away. Sure, it’ll take a little longer to bring ‘em in to where we can get a good trophy video, and the injury and stress of the fight kills a few, but it’s less than 10 percent. What the hell, you have to break a few eggs to make an omelet. We can’t just quit fishing.”

If this were children throwing stones at spawning salmon in a creek, I wouldn’t approve of it, but at least I could understand the urge, the ignorance and the lack of a sense of responsibility. But these people are mature, intelligent adults.

Or are they?

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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