I fished for many years before asking myself any hard questions. A few years ago, I finally asked, “What’s fun about getting the best of a fish?” I had no good answers, which probably explains my hesitation to ask.
Before moving to Alaska from Washington state in 1964, I dreamed about salmon fishing in wilderness streams. Having done that a few times over the years, I’ve found that it’s not what it’s hyped to be. Much of the remote salmon fishing in Alaska is purely catch-and-release, partly because there’s no practical way to preserve and transport fish. In such places, the salmon fishing is just for fun. You don’t catch them to take home and eat, the traditional reason for catching salmon, but just to mess around with them. You hook and “play” them, bring them in, get a few photos of yourself holding them triumphantly and grinning, and you release them.
If catch-and-release is fun, it’s a sick kind of fun. To me, messing around with fish, sometimes hooking one in the eye or the gills, killing some before they have a chance to spawn, isn’t anything I want to tell my grandchildren about, let alone encourage them to do.
It has taken me a long time to come around to my present thinking on catch-and-release, so I can understand how some of you might have other opinions. But if you think catch and release of salmon is the right thing to do, consider this scenario:
The annual bag limit for king salmon taken from the Kenai River is two fish. Studies have shown that about 8 percent of the hooked and released Kenai river kings will die within a few days. You’ve already harvested one king this year, but you don’t want to keep another unless it’s a big one. You catch a few 20- to 30-pounders, but keep releasing them. Finally, you hook a big one. Trouble is, a slot limit is in effect, so you can harvest only kings that are less than 42 inches long, or 55 inches or longer. The one you’ve hooked is 50 inches long, so you can’t keep it. What’s more, blood is pumping from its gills. Ordinarily, you’d harvest this salmon. Now, even though it’s likely to bleed out and die, you have to release it.
The slot limit, a method of conserving larger kings, is a way for fisheries managers to allow more fishing opportunity. While more opportunity might sound good, when this beautiful salmon, now dying, slides from your hands into the depths, how do you like this part of it, the ugly side of catch-and-release fishing?
You’ve probably seen or heard the question that spread like wildfire in the 1990s, “What would Jesus do?” Ya gotta wonder, would Jesus catch and release salmon?
Habitat loss and degradation have severely impacted salmon species and stocks that once thrived in the Pacific Northwest waters, with human development the primary cause. At present, the Kenai Peninsula Borough has an Anadromous Stream Habitat Protection ordinance that affords some protection from some types of development within 50 feet of lakes and streams used by salmon, trout and other anadromous species. It’s meager protection, but some people think we ought to have even less.
On May 19, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly members Dale Bagley and Wayne Ogle introduced an ordinance that would remove all waters from the ordinance except those in the Kenai River Watershed District and the Kasilof River Watershed District. Restrictions against development along the Anchor River, Ninilchik River, Deep Creek and all other streams and lakes would no longer exist. Lands along these waters would continue to be developed as they were in the Pacific Northwest, where fish habitat has been relentlessly degraded.
A hearing date on the ordinance is set for June 16, at the Borough building in Soldotna. Let’s say that you decide to attend and testify before the Borough Assembly. Will you tell assembly members that only the Kenai and Kasilof watersheds are important for salmon, and that waters that support salmon in the remaining parts of the borough are unimportant?
Is having a lawn that extends from your waterfront house to the water more important than having salmon in that water?
Many Pacific Northwest waters have degraded well past the point where they provide salmon habitat. The Washington Sport Fishing Rules devote an entire page to dire warnings about eating fish from lakes and streams.
We Alaskans like to say that we don’t care how they do it Outside. When it comes to our salmon habitat, we’d better start paying attention to what they did Outside.
Les Palmer can be reached at email@example.com.