Guides voice concerns on logbook program

As the Alaska Legislature looks at renewing the fishing guide logbook and registration program, Kenai Peninsula guides are expressing frustration with the current requirements.

The Alaska Senate Finance Committee is examining HB 41, the bill detailing the logbook and registration program, before sending it to the Senate in January during the regular session. The logbook program will remain essentially the same — requiring guides to be certified in first aid, carry liability insurance, have a current sportfishing license and be a citizen of the U.S., Canada or Mexico or a resident alien.

The only difference is that the registration fee will double from $50 to $100 for individual guides and from $100 to $200 for businesses in 2016. One of the reasons for the increase is to cover administrative costs of running the program, said Tom Taube, the deputy director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish.

However, re-establishing the registration program — which lapsed at the end of 2014 when the Legislature did not renew it after a sunset clause caused it to expire — can “provide a basic level of professional standards” for the industry, Taube said.

Instituting a registration system and fees could deter some of the less ethical guides and reduce some of the stigma against guides in the state, Taube said.

“We’re trying to market a high-quality guide market here in the state,” Taube said at a meeting hosted in Soldotna Tuesday.

Few of the approximately 10 guides who attended the meeting Tuesday raised any concerns about the cost increase — guiding on the Kenai already costs about $750 for local guides because of the additional fee for the Kenai River Special Management Area. Most of their qualms with the program were the requirements of the logbook-keeping program.

“There have been a variety of logbook programs over the years,” said Andy Szczesny, a guide and the owner of Alaska Fish & Float in Soldotna. “I should actually be keeping track of every fish and species caught (on trips). I can’t. It’s impossible.”

Szczesny said he used to support the logbook program wholeheartedly but has since changed his mind because of the stringent regulations and potential for tickets and fines. The potential for making a mistake and receiving a ticket and a three-day suspension can cost guides thousands of dollars and damage their businesses, he said.

“As time went by, I find it very difficult to deal with what I’m having to deal with in fresh water,” Szczesny said. “I’m really not in favor of the freshwater logbooks for resident species.”

Fish & Game uses the logbook data to help answer management questions and to respond to fish counts as well as recreation on the river, according to Robert Begich, the area management biologist for the Division of Sport Fish in Soldotna.

“Our management is only as good as the information we have,” Begich said. “(For example) changing fishing patterns for resident species — I’d like to have that in the future for management.”

Joe Connors, the owner of Big Sky Charter & Fish Camp in Sterling, said he has seen the value in collecting logbook data for the sake of tracking but is concerned that the data may be used against guides in the future for enforcement.

“There’s a degree of anxiety out there among guides that they could misuse it and become criminals,” Connors said. “I probably had 10 or 11 checks of my guides this year, and eight were for logbooks.”

Mel Erickson, the owner of Alaska Gamefisher, said the saltwater regulations are overly complicated as well. Part of the regulation is that the logbooks are completed before the passengers leave the boat, but sometimes when passengers are just trying to get off, it’s hard to get it done in time, which puts him at risk for a fine, he said.

“Sometimes the timing of it is that it gets done eventually, but not right then,” Erickson said.

However, the anxiety may be for nothing, said Alaska State Wildlife Trooper Sgt. Ken Acton. In 2013, the wildlife troopers issued seven logbook violations; in 2014, it was 10. Last year, it was only three, he said.

“What I’m hearing is a little apprehension,” Acton said. “When I was working in Cooper Landing, I was trying to work with the guides. I don’t want my troopers to take a lot of your time. You’re trying to make a living.”

However, there are multiple agencies that have policing power on the Kenai River and in the salt water around the Kenai Peninsula — the troopers, the U.S. Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Fish & Game and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Connors said that even if the troopers are issuing relatively few citations, the other entities might be issuing more.

One of the major complaints, however, was the number of nonresident guides. Nonresidents pay more to fish on the Kenai River, but in other areas of the state where there are fewer guides, they have less competition. Multiple attendees have asked whether the state can charge nonresidents more in the guide registration process, Taube said.

“That’s not something that’s currently part of the bill, but it’s something that could be included,” he said.

Mike Romatz, a Kenai guide and the owner of Spirit of the Kenai Fishing and Wildlife Guide Service, said most local residents do not object to local guides — it is only the nonresident guides they object to.

“There’s a lot of the animosity from the people around here toward the nonresident guides,” Romatz said. “Most of the time when they see me, they say, ‘Oh, you’re OK, you’re local.’ I can’t tell you how many times I’ve helped people out on the river.”

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

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