Les Palmer: The state of the Kenai, Part 2

Author’s note: Part 2 in a series of two columns.

Over the years, fish habitat and the quality of the fishing experience have deteriorated on the Kenai River. If we keep doing what we’ve been doing — fishing more and enjoying it less — we’re setting ourselves up for what happened in the Pacific Northwest, where salmon increasingly face extinction.

When I ask people what they think ought to be done to improve the Kenai River’s fish habitat or its fishing, I get a lot of “we need fish-board members and politicians who will make some positive changes.” That’s true enough, but it’s not the whole story. While members of the Board of Fisheries, state legislators and various members of local governments do have the authority to affect change, the real power to change things comes from the people. Nothing significant will be done for Kenai River fish or fishing until people want it to be done.

How many people will it take?

It’ll take enough to over-ride the nay-sayers, the dooms-day prophets and the commercial interests that can’t see beyond their bottom lines. Enough to sway votes in favor of fish and fishing. Enough to get the right people appointed and elected. Enough to accomplish the things that must be done, such as:

■ To ensure healthy salmon runs and to provide a quality fishing experience, fishing pressure must be reduced on Cook Inlet and the Kenai River. All use must be reduced and limited, with commercial use first. Far too many people now rely on this fragile, finite resource for a living. Commercial users shouldn’t be depended upon to “self limit.”

■ To make the river a more productive place for spawning and rearing salmon, a 15-year moratorium should be placed on the use of power boats on the Kenai. This would help to restore the Kenai to quieter, more natural state, as well as improving fish habitat and reducing turbidity and erosion due to boat wakes.

■ Sanctuaries should be created to ensure the sustainability of the various groups of salmon with discrete life histories. For example, at least some early-run king salmon should be allowed to spawn in their traditional areas of the main-stem Kenai without being caught in July, during the late-run king salmon fishery. As now managed, some of these unique salmon groups may be in a “threatened” status.

If you’re wondering, I’m well aware that something in the marine environment is the likely cause of the dismal statewide king salmon runs in recent years, not something in the Kenai River. But I’m also aware that we —individuals, groups, bureaucrats, politicians, all of us — haven’t been looking far enough into the future. We’ve put economics ahead of conservation. We’ve neither paid enough or pushed hard enough for agencies and fishing organizations to be more proactive. We should be doing what’s best for the salmon, not what’s best for the “greatest good,” or for the group that shows up with the most people at meetings.

The above proposals and other similar proposals were considered by the Board of Fisheries at it’s meeting earlier this year, but they didn’t get enough support to win approval. What will it take to win that approval?

Ensuring sustainable salmon runs and improving the quality of the fishing experience will require a strong, collective will. This means our attitudes toward salmon will have to change. As a culture, not as disparate groups of users, we need to learn to relate more closely to salmon than we have in the past. As a culture, we need to feel more responsible for them. In a cooperative effort, we need to make whatever sacrifices are necessary to ensure that salmon spawning and rearing habitats remain healthy, and that fishing practices don’t endanger salmon sustainability. Historically, we’ve failed spectacularly at this level of caring and commitment. Like sea gulls, we’ve ceaselessly bickered over who gets what fish.

Minus a strong, collective will and some changed attitudes, I fear that we’ll squabble salmon into extinction, and that our “world-class” fishing will become nothing but a cheap, world-class tourist trap.

In “King of Fish, the Thousand-Year Run of Salmon,” author David R. Montgomery wrote,“Under human influences the landscape gradually evolved right out from under salmon.” In a more positive vein he noted that “Salmon and civilization can coexist, if we so choose.” Keeping these points in mind will help us focus on doing the right thing for the Kenai River and salmon.

Thinking about the multitude of forces working against salmon can be depressing, but I haven’t given up hope that we can learn from our past mistakes. With enough persistence, enthusiasm and cooperation, we can do it, or at least I hope we can. I wouldn’t want to live in a world without salmon.

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

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