On catch-and-release fishing

A question has been nagging at me. Why wasn’t the late-run Kenai king salmon fishery closed to all fishing from the get-go?

On July 1, following a dismal showing of early-run kings, the Department of Fish and Game allowed the Kenai to open for the harvest of kings. In the first five days of July, only an estimated total of 838 kings entered the river. As recently as 2011, three times that number entered in that period.

Instead of closing the Kenai River to fishing for kings on July 1, ADF&G continued to allow a harvest until July 19. Then, instead of closing the river to king fishing, fishery managers issued an Emergency Order, allowing fishing for kings under catch-and-release rules. Finally, on July 26, facing the poorest king run on record, they did the right thing. They closed the river to king salmon fishing for the last six days of the season.

It wasn’t that the managers didn’t see it coming. In a Feb. 27, 2014 news release, they announced that the Kenai River, from its mouth to Skilak Lake, would be closed for king salmon fishing from May 1 through June 30, to conserve the early run. The outlook for that run was grim, and it soon became reality. In the same news release, the Department announced that only about 18 miles of the lower river would be open for king salmon fishing in July, and the outlook for the late run also looked bleak. That outlook also is becoming a reality.

I strongly resent that fisheries managers and some fishing guides continue to push the use catch-and-release as a management “tool” to maximize fishing opportunity. When any salmon species fails to return in sustainable numbers, fishing opportunities should be minimized, not maximized.

I’m well aware of the catch-and-release mortality study on king salmon, and that catch and release probably kills less only 8 percent of the king salmon caught. But I firmly believe that catching and releasing these fish —having fun with fish that are having difficulty just sustaining their own kind — is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Trouble is, fisheries managers like catch-and-release. Some of them like it so much, they’d make king salmon strictly a catch-and-release fish. The more opportunity they can provide, the more fishing licenses they sell, thus assuring their jobs and project funding. They wouldn’t put it quite that way, but that’s the way it is.

If money weren’t involved, catch-and-release fishing wouldn’t even be an issue. It wasn’t an issue in 1972, when only a handful of guides fished the Kenai, but in the past two decades of sport-fishing industry growth, “economic considerations” have definitely become an issue. Nearly 400 fishing guides crowded onto the Kenai in the peak years of 2006 and 2007. And when push comes to shove, guides like catch-and-release. Not only do they not have to clean fish or bait hooks, but most of the fish they release will live to spawn, or to be caught again. More fish make it easier to sell trips. With catch-and-release, more guides can stay in business.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) waves a conservation banner while at the same time hyping the value of the Kenai River as an economic engine. Strongly pro-guide, KRSA is a member of the Resource Development Council. For KRSA’s viewpoint, listen to Executive Director Ricky Gease telling fellow RDC members about jobs and economic value in May 2012 (vimeo.com/42352468). In the past, KRSA has been a strong advocate of catch-and-release fishing for kings.

I’m all for a healthy economy, but not at the expense of my soul. Catch-and-release fishing for king salmon may be a useful conservation tool, but when it’s used to manage fish that traditionally have been used for food, it goes against the very reasons we fish.

The anglers among us who take time to think can’t help but feel conflicted by what we’re doing. It’s our dirty little secret. We’re getting a shot of adrenaline by “playing” wild animals while they fight for their lives. The harder they fight, the more it excites us. While we claim that catching and releasing fish is harmless fun, we know that we occasionally kill and injure fish. The knowledge nags at us, but we suppress it and fish on.

If we can’t “sport fish” ethically, we shouldn’t be doing it. I haven’t always felt this way about catch and release, but I do now. When you take food out of the fishing and hunting equation, you remove the only ethical reason for fishing and hunting.

If we buy into catch-and-release fishing for salmon, sport fishing will have become nothing more than a sadistic game played for money.

 

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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