With dipnetters from around the state set to swarm Kenai’s beaches in a matter of weeks, local law enforcement and first responders are gearing up to keep residents and visitors safe.
The personal use salmon dipnetting open season begins July 10 and continues for the rest of the month. Historically, both the north and south Kenai beaches get crowded with residents and out-of-towners hoping to fill their coolers. Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross said a logistical change this year will alter the way officers handle the increased traffic.
“The big change on the south side is just the access,” he said.
Where dipnetters previously accessed the south beach via Dunes Road, which Ross said is technically outside city limits, they will now use Royal Street, which has been extended to the beach for that purpose. The Kenai City Council recently passed an ordinance prohibiting vehicle access on the beach between the southern city limits and Royal Street from July 5 to the end of the month, Ross said. The extended Royal Street will be the new access point for dipnetters, and Kenai Police will use signs and direct traffic there, he said.
Traffic and parking continue to be the biggest issues faced by local police during the season, Ross said. Temporary enforcement officers, which the department hires to help out in the summer, wrote 133 dipnet related citations last year, he said, and all were related to parking or vehicles. Former Police Chief Gus Sandahl told the Clarion last year that all 132 citations from the 2014 dipnet season were also parking related.
The temporary enforcement officers, of which there are six this year, will be on hand to patrol the fishery, especially during what Ross described as its eight to 10 busiest days during the season’s peak. Police also get calls for service related to the dipnet for “full gamut of another population being on the beach,” Ross said — including lost children or property, thefts, assaults, trespassing or car accidents.
Kenai Police work closely with the Kenai Fire Department, which in turn works with the Alaska Division of Forestry, said Acting Kenai Fire Chief Tony Prior. He said the members of Kenai Fire are training to use the department’s new 25-foot boat, purchased with a grant just before the last dipnet season.
“With the addition of our safe boat that we have, we’re able to extend our range, extend our services, do a lot more with it,” Prior said.
The exciting addition this year is that of a pump mounted on the boat to give it firefighting capabilities, also purchased with a grant, Prior said. A member of Kenai Fire will be out on the water in the boat along with a Kenai Police officer and a temporary enforcement officer for patrols.
Not only do officers and first responders conduct no wake patrols, they are also out to make sure boaters are traversing the water safely. Prior said as the fishery increases in popularity, so does other fishing during the same time frame.
“It seems like we’re having a lot more recreational boaters that are going in or out of the (river’s) mouth,” he said, explaining that it gets very congested, especially at low tide.
Ross said in an email that there were two reported boating incidents during last year’s dipnet season — one capsized boat with two people being recovered from the water, and a two-boat collision at the river’s mouth that ended with minor damage.
On top of monitoring the dipnet, Prior said Kenai Fire’s calls for service are generally elevated during summer months. The department is already up to 760 calls since Jan. 1, he said. This is a more than 30 percent increase from the call volume in the same time frame from 2015 and 2014, according to a mid-month report from the department to the Kenai City Council.
Prior said it’s not possible to pinpoint a few specific reasons for the increasingly high call volume, but said it is likely due to a number of things, an aging population and the increasing popularity of the dipnet among them.
“We’ve been so busy we’re just trying to catch up on getting into the middle of summer and, again, prepare for the amount of people that are possibly going to be down here for the dipnet season,” Prior said.
Reach Megan Pacer at firstname.lastname@example.org.