An Outdoor View: The money motive

Bill Santos, who lives in Taunton, Mass., called me earlier this week, and the talk soon turned to fishing.

For many years, Bill made the long trip to the Kenai Peninsula to fish for sockeyes on the Kenai. He no longer comes to Alaska, but sometimes fishes for striped bass from the banks of Cape Cod Canal.

“Been catchin’ anything?” he asked.

“Not much,” I said. “You?”

“There’s so many people here now, it’s like combat fishin’ on the Kenai River,” he said. “People will see you catch a fish, and they’ll call their buddies on their cell phones to tell them about it. Before you can get your fish out of the water, there’s a picture of it on the Internet. They’re all on bikes now. The next thing you know, three guys are behind you, casting over your shoulder.”

The timing for hearing this was perfect. I had just started reading the transcript of the recent Kenai Classic Roundtable, held in Soldotna Aug. 19, hosted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. According to a blog on the KRSA Website, roundtable panelists were “leaders from all segments of the recreational fishing community.”

I couldn’t help but wonder what these leaders had planned for my segment of their so-called community. I noted that none of them were from any community on the Kenai Peninsula. The only one from Alaska, Kara Moriarty, is the executive director of the Alaska Oil and Gas Association and a KRSA board member.

Further on in the blog, I learned that the panel “focused on a long-term view of recreational fishing and the strategies necessary to ensure continued growth of the sport.”

Thank you, panel members, but where I live, the sport has grown quite enough. Just as my friend Bill Santos has found on Cape Cod Canal, we’ve had all the growth of the sport we can stand on the Kenai Peninsula. We’ve been loving the Kenai River to death for years. Now you’re advocating for still more growth? When is enough enough?

The only segment of the recreational fishing community that wants continued growth of the sport is the sport-fishing industry — the guides, lodges, and everyone else who makes a buck from people who fish. It’s telling that Yamaha Marine Group sponsors the Kenai Classic.

If you haven’t noticed, the sport-fishing industry on the Kenai Peninsula has boomed. Trouble is, busts always follow booms, especially when the boom is based on something as cyclical and as undependable as fish. And when business slows, business people get creative. For example, in 2002, Kenai River guides and KRSA nearly succeeded in making the early run of Kenai River king salmon a “catch-and-release only” fish.

The scheme triggered fierce debate. Guides claimed that “c & r only” was the only way to make fishing predictable. Many of us who had been catching Kenai River kings in May and June for years strongly opposed the idea. Making Kenai kings a fish that can only be played with would set a precedent for other salmon and other waters. It would also deprive the majority of Alaskans of a fish they had traditionally used as food. After two years of debate that divided our small community, the Alaska Board of Fisheries changed the regulation to allow more harvest opportunity. Even after all the hullaballoo, some fishing guides continue to push for “c & r only” for kings. The debate goes on, a constant wedge that divides us all.

The sport-fishing industry is primarily interested in making a profit. It couldn’t care less about your family traditions, or whether you have to wait in line to back-troll through your favorite fishing hole. And a united sport-fishing industry is powerful enough to do pretty much anything it wants.

The only way to counter against such power would be for sport fishermen outside the industry to become far more politically active. Trouble is, without money in the game, most “sports” don’t have the will to do the thankless work that needs to be done. Instead, we wear our blinders, trusting others to carry our water, protect our interests. Hereabouts, these “others” are the guides and the paid staff and consultants of KRSA who attend Board of Fisheries meetings in Anchorage, where the important decisions are made.

I doubt that many people in the sport-fishing industry spend much time fretting about “Joe Fisherman’s” interests. Embedded in all their talk about conservation, angler access and fishing opportunity lies their true motivation: growth and profit. I don’t see how anything good or lasting can come from more growth of sport fishing on the Kenai Peninsula.

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

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