Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion  In this July 14, 2014 file photo, people fishing with dipnets in the largest personal-use fishery in Alaska, crowd near the Kenai City Docks as they work to net some of the millions of sockeye that run on the Kenai River every year. The City of Kenai has been tasked with managing the massive fishery and made several changes, including adding enforcement, during the 2014 season.

Photo by Rashah McChesney/Peninsula Clarion In this July 14, 2014 file photo, people fishing with dipnets in the largest personal-use fishery in Alaska, crowd near the Kenai City Docks as they work to net some of the millions of sockeye that run on the Kenai River every year. The City of Kenai has been tasked with managing the massive fishery and made several changes, including adding enforcement, during the 2014 season.

Kenai talks 2014 dipnet fishery

  • By DAN BALMER
  • Sunday, November 23, 2014 8:14pm
  • News

Every year, after the sand settles from thousands of dipnetters visiting Kenai for the last three weeks of July, the city reviews its management of the massive fishery and evaluates improvements that can be made.

A point of emphasis this year was increased enforcement near the south beach of the Kenai River to address safety, environmental hazards and private property owners. City administration reported that the changes yielded positive results.

The city of Kenai presented its 2014 dipnet report to the city council at a work session Thursday attended by a handful of citizens at Kenai City Hall. Despite fewer salmon that entered the Kenai River during the 2014 dipnet season, compared to last year, more than 38,000 permits were issued to participating Alaskan households, which equated to more than 120,000 users, said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch.

Council member Ryan Marquis said the dipnet crowds seem to grow larger every year.

“This year I went over to Eric Hansen Scout Park in Old Town and there was a huge crowd of people watching the huge crowd of people on the beach,” he said. “You know you have a lot of people down there when it attracts a crowd.”

Kenai residents Bob and Tracey Kautz watch the dipnet crowds on the beach from their home on Toyon Way along the north beach bluff.

“If the state is going to burden our little city with this they need to help us,” said Kenai resident Tracey Kautz. “The amount of people on the beach is craziness.”

Tracey Kautz said she would like to see a limit to how many family members would be allowed to access the beach.

Koch said the city cannot limit the number of people on the beach.

“This is a state run fishery but it all happens on city property,” he said. “We don’t have a seat at the table.”

Despite the logistical difficulties that come with large crowds, he said the citizens have been welcoming to the dipnet visitors.

“Some may have strong feelings of not wanting their town inundated with the fishery,” he said. “It is remarkable how hospitable the community is in spite of it all.”

In preparation for the 2014 dipnet season at a work session in January, the city heard from several south beach property owners about their concerns of bank degradation caused by boat wakes and dipnet campers trespassing on private property around Old Cannery Road.

In response to those concerns, the city implemented two major changes this year. First was a no-wake zone during periods of high tide along a 6,000-foot stretch on the south of the Kenai River. When the tide reached 20.5 feet high, the Kenai Police and Fire Departments patrolled the no-wake zone, marked with three buoys, to ensure boaters complied with the ordinance. The city estimated that it cost about $30,000 to institute the zone.

Koch said operations at the city dock are the most labor intensive. The city has a proposed fee increase at the city boat launch from $25 for launch and park to $40 and $15 for a parking without a boat trailer to $20. The increase is estimated to bring in an additional $60,000.

The city also eliminated beach access on Old Cannery Road, which left Dunes Road as the only access point in south beach. To accommodate the increased traffic to the area, the city placed two fee shacks at Dunes Road.

Council member Bob Molloy said the city sent a resolution for a no-wake zone to Alaska’s Board of Fisheries, which establishes fisheries regulation in the state, but the board didn’t accept the proposal. So the city drafted an ordinance on its own.

Molloy said he appreciated how hard the city employees worked to manage the fishery and control the chaos.

“We have seen lots of changes and there is still more to do,” he said. “We made progress with solutions in south beach and with a new access road, if we build it they will come.”

Koch unveiled plans for a new road to access the south beach, north of Old Cannery Road. The state Legislature appropriated $1.9 million for the project, which is expected to be completed in time for the 2015 dipnet season. Koch said the road would provide adequate access to the beach. He hopes to eliminate the trespass problems private property owners experienced in the area, he said.

While the fishery wasn’t as profitable as last year, the city was able to collect more user fees by increasing enforcement. The personal use fishery generated $624,728, which was $53,509 more than what the city budgeted and $48,564 less than last year.

Finance Director Terry Eubank said while the dipnet revenue went up, so did the expenditure. The goal is for the dipnet fund to be self-sustaining, he said.

A couple of changes to the fee structure were made.

Parking and camping were combined into overnight parking for $45. Day use parking remained at $20 and camping without a vehicle was $25.

Early on during the season the city had intended to staff the fee shacks from 6 a.m. to 11 p.m. Eubank said it became clear the self-pay stations didn’t work and on July 14, four days after the opening, the city decided to staff the shacks around the clock to capture as much fees as possible.

Staff discovered that 16 percent of all transactions occur between 11 p.m. and 6 a.m. The decision to staff the shacks at all hours eliminated lost revenue and fee confusion from the self-pay stations and made a tremendous improvement to data collection, Eubank said. The increased cost in added staff hours was nearly $4,000 for 300 hours. His recommendation was to eliminate the self-pay stations and staff the shacks at all hours in the future.

Data collected from users showed participants from the central Kenai Peninsula totaled 14 percent, while Anchorage-area residents made up nearly 60 percent of fishery users.

One of the problems experienced this year, was traffic being backed up at the north beach access on South Spruce Street and impatient drivers skipping the fee shacks by driving through the exit lane.

Koch presented a recommendation to move two fee shacks up South Spruce Street to provide better flow of traffic with a turnaround spot for larger vehicles. Installation of a swing arm gate for the shacks and the exit lane would also reduce the chance to bypass the shacks, he said.

Kenai resident Bob Peters, who is a member of the harbor commission, said he appreciated the city employee’s hard work from management to maintenance.

“Some people think the city makes a fortune on the fishery and I know that is simply not true,” he said.

Koch said as the fishery has evolved the cost to manage the needs of the participants grows. The department capital requests for Fiscal Year 2016 is estimated to cost $220,000. Among the requests is a tractor with a hydraulic rake to clean the beach for $55,000 and $4,000 for cameras to view north and south beach and the city dock.

Council member Brian Gabriel said its important the city works to improve enforcement and make sure everyone who uses the fishery is paying for it. Otherwise the bill is left for the Kenai taxpayers to subsidize it.

In the future the administration recommended the dipnet fund provide a fund balance to maintain a reserve to cover the city expenses in the event of a revenue shortfall like the city experienced in 2006, when the state closed the fishery on an emergency order. The city expenses exceeded income by more than $100,000 that year, Koch said.

The Kenai Police Department added six temporary enforcement officers that handled 150 dipnet-related calls from July 10 to July 31. The officers worked to enforce a prohibition on parking in Old Town and issued 132 citations for parking violations, according to a report from Kenai Police Chief Gus Sandahl.

The Kenai Fire Department responded to three capsized boats in the Kenai River during the dipnet season. While nobody was seriously injured, one dog died. Paramedics also responded to one all-terrain vehicle rollover on north beach.

This year Gabriel said he noticed people access the river near the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge, an area where people damage the wetlands habitat.

“We have taken proactive measures to protect those sensitive wetlands because the vegetation doesn’t just grow back overnight. It takes years,” he said. “This is an evolving process and we are always looking to improve.”

Marquis said in his five years hearing the dipnet reports every year the city’s handling of the fishery is more “efficient and refined” and the number of complaints reduces each year.

“We have more to do but I’m proud of how the city has been able to adapt and react,” he said. “I think we are going in the right direction.”

 

Reach Dan Balmer at dan.balmer@peninsulaclarion.com

 

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