In this photo submitted to Fish for the Future, a young angler holds up the king salmon he caught and released. Fish for the Future, a program begun by two central Kenai Peninsula guides, offers prizes for people who submit photographs of king salmon they caught and released on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in June and July as a way to encourage people to release fish and conserve the fishery over time. (Photo courtesy Fish for the Future)

In this photo submitted to Fish for the Future, a young angler holds up the king salmon he caught and released. Fish for the Future, a program begun by two central Kenai Peninsula guides, offers prizes for people who submit photographs of king salmon they caught and released on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in June and July as a way to encourage people to release fish and conserve the fishery over time. (Photo courtesy Fish for the Future)

‘Fish for the Future’ program seeks to encourage catch and release for kings

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Mark Wackler’s name.

Nearly every day this summer, someone has posted a photo to Fish for the Future’s Facebook page of a king salmon hooked, caught and released again on the Kenai or Kasilof rivers.

Greg Brush and Mark Wackler, both guides on the central peninsula rivers, included the goal for the project in the name — Fish for the Future. The goal is to educate and encourage people to release large king salmon to preserve king salmon for the next generation of fishermen.

Citing Alaska Department of Fish and Game data about fish survival after being caught and released, the two want the project to encourage people to consider releasing the king salmon they catch, allowing them to go upriver and spawn. The project is not meant to force catch and release on anyone, but to provide them with facts about fish survival and encourage them to try it, Brush said.

“(We say), ‘Maybe that’s the right thing to do,” Brush said. “’Maybe if we want fish for our kids and our grandkids, that’s a good option. Maybe we should hold ourselves to a higher standard.’ That’s the thing — we can’t rely on the managers … what are you doing for the fish? I know what I’m doing for the fish — what are you doing for the fish?”

Wackler and Brush, who both say they try to keep their names and businesses dissociated from the project to let it stand on its own merit, have been running Fish for the Future since last summer. Participants can submit photos of king salmon successfully caught and released to the program’s Facebook page including the angler’s name, date and where the fish was caught and released.

For entering, they get a chance to win prize like a flightseeing trip for two to Chinitna Bay, a guided Cook Inlet halibut charter for two, a rod and reel combo or a custom painting of the fish they released from Catch and Release Print Shop, among other prizes. Winners are separated into various categories, including “hog of the year,” a women’s division, youth, video and June fish.

Wackler and Brush started the project because of a longstanding frustration they shared — watching the Kenai River king salmon runs decline and the community continue to bicker

over who was at fault. The Kenai Peninsula, home to one of the most popular sportfisheries in the state as well as a large number of commercial fishermen, is famous for longstanding disagreements over fish allocation and management of its various runs.

The disagreements have become particularly divisive in the past decade as the Kenai River’s king runs have declined precipitously and forced closures in both the sportfishery and the commercial fishery. Some fishermen, both in the sportfishing and commercial fishing sectors, have expressed a lack of faith in the management strategy on the river and have begun taking their own steps to conserve king salmon, such as some east side setnetters reducing the depth of their nets to catch fewer king salmon and three sportfishing interest groups coming together with a unified proposal to tighten harvest regulations for early-run Kenai River kings at the most recent Board of Fisheries meetings.

Brush and Wackler said they wanted to start something that stepped away from the allocation disagreements and do something to conserve the king runs themselves.

“(The fighting between commercial fishermen and sportfishermen) has gotten us nowhere — it’s actually gotten us backwards,” Wackler said.

They emphasized that the program is not meant to force anyone to catch and release fish but to educate and encourage them to conserve the resource, especially in times of low abundance. There are plenty of other food fish species that people can retain if they want to eat salmon, Brush said, but with the ever-growing pressure on the Kenai River, it makes sense to be conservative with the Kenai River’s king salmon, especially the biggest ones.

Brush and Wackler said they regularly educate their clients and the public in general about catch and release techniques and about the research done on the Kenai River kings, including life cycles and the declining populations over time, particularly among the largest fish.

“Probably half of what we do is mythbusting,” Wackler said.

The Fish for the Future program has grown beyond what they expected within the first year. Local businesses like Widespread Fishing and Trustworthy Hardware are familiar with the Kenai River’s conservation issues, but Brush said executives at major companies, including fishing tackle company Rapala and Willie Boats, reached out to him to ask how they could donate gear for prizes, which has been encouraging, Brush said.

Last year, the program focused on the Kenai River in July. This year, they essentially doubled its size, including a June category and accepting entries from the Kasilof River. The Kasilof, which sees less traffic than the Kenai River every year but is increasingly popular, does not have the same amount of research data on the king salmon population, which is concerning for the long-term health of the stock, Wackler said. That’s why they included the river.

“It’s not just a Kenai River project,” Wackler said.

“It’s a wild king project,” Brush added.

King salmon fishing season on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers ends Aug. 1, and the two plan to announce the contest winners Aug. 2.

The community is looking for something less antagonistic than the allocation wars have been in the past and many people have been very supportive of Fish for the Future’s goal, Brush said. It’s not everyone — some people aren’t on board — but Wackler said they’ve been encouraged by groups that previously butted heads on fisheries issues coming together with a common purpose.

“As guides on the river, we’re just teachers — we’re teachers of fishing,” Brush said. “We’re teaching them how to catch these, so aren’t we also responsible to teach them about the biology and the ethics and everything else? If we’re held to a higher code individually, then collectively, we can make a difference.”

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

In this photo submitted to Fish for the Future, an angler releases the king salmon he caught. Fish for the Future, a program begun by two central Kenai Peninsula guides, offers prizes for people who submit photographs of king salmon they caught and released on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in June and July as a way to encourage people to release fish and conserve the fishery over time. (Photo courtesy Fish for the Future)

In this photo submitted to Fish for the Future, an angler releases the king salmon he caught. Fish for the Future, a program begun by two central Kenai Peninsula guides, offers prizes for people who submit photographs of king salmon they caught and released on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in June and July as a way to encourage people to release fish and conserve the fishery over time. (Photo courtesy Fish for the Future)

In this photo submitted to Fish for the Future, an angler prepares to release a king salmon he caught. Fish for the Future, a program begun by two central Kenai Peninsula guides, offers prizes for people who submit photographs of king salmon they caught and released on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in June and July as a way to encourage people to release fish and conserve the fishery over time. (Photo courtesy Fish for the Future)

In this photo submitted to Fish for the Future, an angler prepares to release a king salmon he caught. Fish for the Future, a program begun by two central Kenai Peninsula guides, offers prizes for people who submit photographs of king salmon they caught and released on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in June and July as a way to encourage people to release fish and conserve the fishery over time. (Photo courtesy Fish for the Future)

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