Editor’s note: This article has been corrected to show that the Ninilchik Tribe operates the only subsistence gillnet in the Kenai River.
The heads of passing boaters swiveled toward the bank, curious to see the only subsistence gillnet allowed in the Kenai River.
The Ninilchik Traditional Council’s subsistence gillnet takes up about 30 feet of bank. The net swayed in the strong current,bucking when a fish struck the mesh. Though the gear made it in the water this season, whether it will make its way through the regulatory process next year is unclear yet.
“Seeing any rainbows?” a boater called out to the tribal staff near the net as his boat passed.
“None!” called back Daniel Reynolds, one of the designated fishers for the tribe. “Just reds.”
The boaters nodded and called back good luck before navigating down the river. Gina Wiste, an environmental technician who fishes for the tribe, said the exchange was one of the kindest they’d had since their first day fishing there July 28.
“It’s a mix. Some people can be really unpleasant, and some are just curious,” Wiste said.
Wiste, Reynolds and Resource and Environmental Director Darrel Williams have fished for Ninilchik residents most days this summer. The tribe got permission to use a subsistence gillnet in the Kasilof River in January 2015 and ran that for the beginning part of this summer. However, though the tribe asked for nets on both the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service only granted the permit for the Kasilof net.
The federal agency issued a permit for the Kenai River net on July 27, 2016 after the tribe filed a special action request with the Federal Subsistence Board, the body that oversees subsistence activities in Alaska, amid a year-long legal tangle with the U.S Department of the Interior and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The tribe has been working on a permit to fish with a gillnet in the Kenai since 2006.
Williams said the tribe didn’t know what to expect from the special action request.
“To be honest, we were all pretty surprised that it went through,” Williams said.
Williams zigzagged the tribe’s boat up the Kenai River from Swiftwater Park outside Soldotna on Sunday. He passed lines of anglers casting for silvers and reds in the Moose Range Meadows and the yellow sign marking the end of state waters, passing into the portion of federally managed part of the river. Williams said they have tried out different portions of the river to find where is the most effective to set up.
About 40 feet offshore, Williams stalled the boat and Reynolds dropped an anchor and sandbags off the bow, following it with a buoy to mark the edge of the net area. Williams guided the boat over to the shore, where Reynolds disembarked with the gear. Williams and Wiste joined him after mooring, running the 5.25 inch-mesh net out into the current.
The first fish hit within six minutes.
“We’re in a channel right here, and the fish like that,” Wiste said. “They head right up this way and toward the bank, and that’s where we catch them.”
The tribe staff fishes for Ninilchik residents who may not be able to do it themselves. They can only harvest as many fish as people who submit permits — 25 per head of household with five additional fish per family member. So while they were allowed to harvest up to 2,000 sockeye, 50 king salmon, 50 rainbow trout and 100 Dolly Varden this year, they can only catch as many fish as the submitted permits allow.
Wiste tallied each fish caught while Williams and Reynolds picked them from the net. Per regulation, she clipped each one’s dorsal fin and recorded it on the permits. They deliver the fish whole to the permit holders, who clean them at home. Regulations prohibit the tribe’s fishermen from cleaning the fish on site because it could attract bears, Williams explained.
The fish are fewer and smaller on the Kasilof. Williams said some days on the Kasilof would produce less than 10 fish after several hours of netting.
“These fish (on the Kenai) are so much bigger, and some people will say, ‘Those fish are huge, I can’t take any more’, ” Wiste said. “Everybody on this list has gotten fish.”
Only tribal employees can fish because of the federal requirement to carry a $500,000 insurance policy. They also take samples of every king salmon they catch.
“People were sort of wondering if they were going to get any (fish from the Kasilof gillnet),” he said. “That’s really what this is all about, doing something for the people.”
After three hours of netting, the designated fishers had hauled in 54 salmon, all sockeye except for two coho. As of Sunday, the tribe had only caught one king salmon and one Dolly Varden, both of which were less than 18 inches long, according to the catch records.
The Federal Subsistence Board, the body that oversees subsistence activities in Alaska, approved the nets on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in January 2015 but Fish and Wildlife did not issue a permit for the 2015 season. The permit for the 2016 season only came after legal action in the courts, and it was approved as experimental, meaning that next year’s gillnet activity hangs in the balance of federal approval.
A subsistence fisheries regulation cycle is approaching this winter as well, bringing two proposals to ban the Ninilchik tribe’s gillnet in the Kenai River entirely — one from Fish and Wildlife itself and the other from the Cooper Landing and Hope Federal Subsistence Community. The latter complains that the net is detrimental to stocks of conservation concern.
Fish and Wildlife managers haven’t had time to evaluate what happened on the fishery but they will do so since the fishing season ended Monday, said Andrea Madeiros, spokesperson for Fish and Wildlife in Anchorage.
“The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service remains concerned about the use of a gillnet in the Moose Range Meadows because it is a spawning area,” Madeiros wrote in an email.
Both Williams and Wiste said they were unsure what would happen for next year. Williams said he understands the conservation concerns and the tribe has carefully evaluated the net’s effects on the river’s habitat and the fish populations. The tribe brought on a fisheries biologist for advice as well.
“If anything, we’re conservation minded,” Williams said.
As they were packing the fish into bags to leave the site Sunday, Wiste said they would have to plan for more fish storage next year because more people would likely take part. What she’d really like, she said, is a fish tote.
“It’s not gonna do us any good this year, since the season’s almost over,” Williams said. “Wait till next year.”