A group of boats gathered in protest on the Kenai River at the riverfront home of a sport fishing activist Bob Penney Wednesday.
As dozens of revelers looked on, the boats displayed banners and signs excoriating Penney and a group celebrating the 22nd annual Kenai River Classic fishing event at his home.
Eight boats and a kayak sat quietly on the river for two hours, as music blared from the speakers and at least a hundred well-dressed guests of Penney’s party dined and drank during the party. Every so often, one would break away to take a photo of the protestors — but beyond the waves exchanged between the revelers and the protestors when the boats finally left, the two groups did not interact.
It was the first protest that has been held at a Kenai River Classic event in recent memory. A Soldotna police officer assigned to a Kenai River Classic event at the Soldotna Sports Center said Wednesday that he had been working security at Classic events for more than a decade and had yet to see an organized protest.
The protest was, in part, organized by the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition. The coalition has been primarily represented by private anglers and former fisheries biologists. It bills itself as an organization dedicated to championing the rights of private anglers, while supporting other user groups and advocating for balanced management of fisheries resources.
Dave Athons, a former Fish and Game biologist and current board member for the coalition, said he thinks people mobilized to protest this year after a Soldotna candidate for Alaska’s Board of Fisheries, Robert Ruffner, failed to be confirmed by the Alaska Legislature. The Kenai River Sportfishing Association was one of a handful of organizations that opposed his appointment in the days leading up to his confirmation hearing. Ruffner had broad support, especially on the central Kenai Peninsula where the Kenai and Soldotna city councils and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly publicly supported his nomination.
“I think the catalyst is that all of the sudden, the public sees Ruffner’s failure to be confirmed. They see a highly qualified candidate and they see these (Kenai River Sportfishing Association) letters against him,” Athons said.
Dwight Kramer, board member for KAFC, wrote in an email that the organization was demonstrating against the Kenai Classic and KRSA to make it donors and participants in the classic aware of how their money is being spent.
Kramer wrote that KRSA’s lobbying efforts to keep the Board of Fisheries meetings away from the Kenai and Soldotna areas were also a reason to protest.
“There are many other examples of unethical behavior from KRSA that lead us to believe that they are not good neighbors or the type of organization we desire in our community,” Kramer wrote.
When asked to comment on the protests, Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease sent this statement:
“Our primary goal at KRSA is conservation of salmon habitat while promoting responsible sportfishing on the Kenai River. The Classic brings awareness that the Kenai River matters. The event provides an educational opportunity to attendees on a wide ranges of issues, including habitat conservation, fisheries management, research and stewardship of this great resource. The Kenai supports the state’s largest sport and personal use fisheries — great angler access and fishing opportunities make it one of the great sportfishing rivers in the world. Yet the Kenai River also is one of the great conservation success stories anywhere in the world in that there has been more investment in habitat conservation to protect riparian fish habitat and restore fish passage, more areas closed to bank fishing, and more habitat friendly angler access infrastructure than any other location in Alaska. Today at the Kenai River Classic Roundtable we had national and state experts discuss current hurdles and opportunities facing the sportfishing industry and offered their views on long-term plans to confront the challenges while supporting the opportunities that exist.”
Protestors said they planned to gather again Thursday at the Soldotna Sports Center where another Classic event will be held beginning at 4:30 p.m.