Les Palmer: The state of the Kenai part 1

Author’s note: Part one of a series of two.

The vitality of the Kenai River is threatened. Power boat wakes and stream bank development have contributed to the erosion of the river’s banks and the degradation of its fish beds. Increased use on the river endangers fish and wildlife habitats. Competition among people who sport fish, professional fishing guides and others who use the river for recreation and transportation creates overcrowded, hazardous and unpleasant conditions.

The foregoing paragraph bears a scary resemblance to the present state of the Kenai River, but some readers will recognize it as being from the “Findings” section of the act that established the Kenai River Special Management Area.

As of June 2, this law, meant to protect the much-loved Kenai River, will have been in effect for 30 years.

I’m not claiming that nothing has been done to mitigate the bad things that were happening on and along the Kenai in the booming ‘70s and ‘80s, but I’ve noticed that not much has changed for the better in the three decades since. Power-boat wakes continue to erode the banks. Increased use continues to endanger fish and wildlife habitats. A steadily increasing number of guided and non-guided anglers continues to compete for a finite amount of water. What has changed?

This isn’t the same Kenai River I knew and loved in the 1970s. Now, unless you’re on the river very early or very late in the year, there’s no feeling of wilderness. Instead of finding mushrooms and wild flowers in the woods, you find clumps of toilet paper. Now, when fishing for silver salmon in the fall, you have to share a fishing hole with several other boats — if you can get in at all. There’s no longer a quiet, September “shoulder” season, when the tourists were gone. Our much-vaunted “world-class” fishing now brings them here from breakup to freeze-up.

For the past 40 years, the Kenai has been in the agonizing process of being loved to death. Though virtually all of its users claim some degree of concern about the river, they apparently don’t realize — or maybe they just won’t acknowledge — that the degradation of the habitat continues to increase, and the quality of the fishing experience continues to decrease.

It’s increasingly obvious that the value of the Kenai, one of Alaska’s most valuable natural resources, is decreasing, but efforts to control activities on and along the river meet with such fierce resistance that few changes are for the better. One reason for this is that fishermen hate to change old habits, especially if the change costs them money. But another reason that little gets accomplished is the insidious growth of commercial use of the Kenai. Directly or indirectly, thousands of people now depend on income from the Kenai’s fish and fishing. With so many jobs and the local economy at stake, it’s now very difficult to affect significant change.

A good example of this difficulty has been the effort — in vain, so far — to limit the number of fishing guides. Guides have come to symbolize the commercial use of the river. They dominate the best fishing spots. Though they often claim that they are only glorified taxi drivers, that their clients do the fishing, that’s a real stretch. Expert, persistent and effective fishermen, guides usually do everything but reel in the fish after it’s hooked. According to Fish and Game records, the average guided angler can catch a king salmon in a fraction of the time that it takes the average non-guided angler to catch one.

Reducing the number of guides on the Kenai would improve the fishing experience by relieving some of the crowding and fishing pressure. One telling finding in the 2009 “Kenai River Recreation Study” was that 28 percent of the fishing guides who responded to the survey had reduced or stopped using the lower Kenai because there were “too many guide boats.” When even the guides say there are too many guides, that should tell you something.

In 1982, there were only 207 fishing guides on the Kenai. By 2006, there were 396, a record high. Poor king salmon runs of recent years, coupled with high gasoline prices and a wimpish economy, caused fishing guide numbers to drop to 284 in 2013, but they won’t remain there for long. The number of guides will dramatically increase when the economy or king salmon runs improve, both of which are likely.

What won’t improve is the state of the Kenai. There is simply too much fishing pressure and development on and along this relatively small river to sustain its salmon populations and quality fisheries. Unless somehow limited, pressure and development will continue to increase, at least for the foreseeable future.

Next week: Looming issues with Kenai River fish habitat and the fishing experience, what it might take to change things for the better, and what’s likely to happen if nothing is done.

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

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