Fish board proposals ask for changes in dipnet fishery

Thousands of Alaskans flock to the mouth of the Kenai River each July to scoop up the sockeye salmon that run early that month. But when the dipnetters leave, it’s the locals that have to deal with the fallout, both in the offseason and amid the rush.

City of Kenai equipment drivers clearing the beach sometimes have to deploy spotters for late-night dipnetters when the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game decides to open the fishery for 24 hours. Bacteria from birds, fish and humans collects in the water, sometimes exceeding the water quality standards. Vegetation gets trampled and chunks of bank weaken further up the river toward the Warren Ames Bridge from the pressure of dipnetters crisscrossing it, all in a period of three weeks.

The most popular personal use fishery in the state is reaching a crossroads where access may be changed or infrastructure introduced to accommodate it.

“It’s just a matter of how you (maintain the land) while we respond to a fishery,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch. “We didn’t create it, but we’re left to react to it.”

The City of Kenai made about a $93,000 profit on the dipnet fishery in 2015, but most of it goes back into capital projects for the fishery and as a backup to the city’s general fund in case the fishery is ever closed by emergency order. This year, the city is raising its fee to park and will institute a daily drop-off/pick-up permit fee of $10, if the Kenai City Council approves the change.

Koch also submitted a proposal to the Board of Fisheries for the 2017 Upper Cook Inlet cycle to prohibit Fish and Game from opening the fishery for 24-hour periods. The extra opening gets in the way of the city’s ability to clean the beach and is a public safety concern, Koch said.

The city submits the proposal every cycle, and it gets shot down during the board meeting each time. Koch said the justification is unclear but that he understands it is easier for the commissioner of Fish and Game to use the 24-hour opening to help control sockeye escapement. However, it leaves Kenai with the consequences.

“When there are people around and heavy equipment and it’s dark, sometimes there’s little kids out there who are out fishing with their parents … it creates a situation that I’m not fond of,” Koch said. “It only takes a moment for a tragedy to happen with a large piece of equipment.”

Fish and Game has concerns, too. The department submitted another proposal to block off the fishery entirely to dipnetting from the bank on both sides of the Kenai River upriver from the mouth. Bank fishermen would have to stop at a Fish and Game market at No-Name Creek, which is where the river meets Cook Inlet.

Increased participation in the fishery has led to concerns about damage to the habitat. The actual level of damage has not been assessed, but “it is evident that dipnet fishing from the vegetated tide lands downstream of the Warren Ames Bridge may be negatively impacting the riparian habitat in the lower Kenai River,” according to Fish and Game’s proposal.

At the same time, the increased participation has meant greater demand for access. Several proposals have also been submitted to the Board of Fisheries aimed at increasing access for the personal use fishery in the Kenai River.

The South Central Alaska Dipnetters Association, a Wasilla-based personal use dipnetting advocacy group, submitted a proposal that would allow any river-fronting property owners to dipnet from their own “fish habitat friendly structures,” reducing crowding in the area where personal use dipnetting is currently allowed.

During years with large late-run sockeye runs, more fish get away than the sportfishery further upriver can handle, according to the proposal. The statute change would require the structures on private property to be permitted by the Kenai Peninsula Borough’s River Center, and the permit would have to be displayed all the time while the dipnet fishing was taking place.

“Opening up shore based dipnetting to property owners along the Kenai River who have fish habitat friendly structures on their property would allow those property owners to partake in the dipnet fishery from fish habitat friendly structures to protect bank habitat and reduce crowding in the current areas on the Kenai where dipnetting is allowed,” the proposal states.

Another proposal would open up a little more space on the river for dipnetting from boats. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association proposed allowing personal use fishing from a boat up to Cunningham Park, about 1.5 river miles above the Warren Ames Bridge, which serves as the current boundary.

Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said opening up that section of the river could help alleviate some of the crowding further down. The area between Cunningham Park and the Warren Ames Bridge is not heavily used for sportfishing, he said.

Infrastructure, such as light penetrating boardwalks and other environmental protections, will be important in providing access to the fishery, he said. If the infrastructure had been in place, Fish and Game would not be asking to close the banks to dipnet fishing, he said.

“That’s why I think the City of Kenai has been wise in investing in habitat protection measures while still providing robust access to the fisheries at the mouth, to see if there are ways to see if we can make that investment elsewhere, like at the Warren Ames Bridge,” Gease said.

The City of Kenai has a number of projects planned to improve the fishery, such as more fencing on both sides of the Kenai River and improvements to the boat launch. The city has set up a fund for the personal use fishery, but funding from the state is not likely to be available the way it has in the past, Koch said. That is part of why he is asking the council to approve the fee increase.

“We are not going to get any money from the state to help support capital expenditures on this fishery for the foreseeable future,” Koch said. “Usually I get $100,000, $150,000 out of the Legislature for this fishery … we’re not going to see that source of funding for a while.”

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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