Editor’s note: This story has been changed to show that Glenn Arundell did not himself propose a 50 horsepower motor limit on dipnetting boats to the Board of Fish. The proposal was submitted by George Parks.
Meeting on Thursday for their annual review of this summer’s personal use dipnet fishery, Kenai administrators, council members and harbor commissioners heard few of the complaints about traffic jams, overflowing parking lots, and litter that have filled such meetings in the past.
As city staff fine-tune the parking, clean-up, and safety operations they perform around the popular fishery — held this summer July 10-31 — the discussion at Thursday’s meeting turned to capsizing boats, vendor concerns and the new drop-off fee.
In addition to the $20-per-day parking fee and $25-per-day camping fee, this year the fee shacks on Kenai’s north and south beaches also charged $10 for a daily pass allowing vehicles to enter the parking lot, drop off passengers, and leave — an activity which had been free in previous years. A total of 1,251 drop-off passes were issued in this year’s fishery, 117 of which were later upgraded to parking passes.
Though Kenai administrators proposed the $10 drop-off fee in April 2014, the city council voted 6-2 against it. The council passed the drop-off fee in its June 1 meeting this year.
Kenai Finance Director Terry Eubank wrote in his department’s dipnet report that the drop-off fee had been projected to bring in a revenue of $28,950 this year, but after sales tax actually earned $10,634. On the north beach — the most popular Kenai dipnetting location — drop-off transactions fell 135 percent from 2015’s 4,594 drop-offs to only 1,103 in 2016. On the south beach drop-offs rose from last year’s 63 to 72.
Of the drop-off fees collected, dipnetters from Anchorage contributed $5,177 — about half the total. Kenai dipnetters and those from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough each spent $1,518 in drop-off fees, while Soldotna contributed $839.
“We didn’t learn that there was a much larger percentage of peninsula folks doing drop-offs,” he said.
In his dipnet report, Kenai Police Chief Dave Ross wrote that his department responded to four capsized boats and two boat collisions during the 2016 fishery, and that “some or all of them may have been attributable to wave action in the river created by other boats.”
During meetings he’d attended of the Board of Fisheries — the state board that regulates fisheries — Koch said he’d heard arguments in favor of a minimum size limit on boats in river mouth.
“The (swamped boats) that I’m aware of shouldn’t have been in the water in the first place,” Koch said. “They’re small boats that are overloaded… It doesn’t take much of a wake for them to be underwater … The big boats can be obnoxious and depending on how they wallow through the water can make big wakes, but I think what’s really dangerous are boats that have no business being there in the first place with people driving them that have no idea what they’re doing.”
The meeting’s only public commenter, Glenn Arundell, advocated a different limit on dipnetting boats. Saying he believed it to be only a matter of time until a more serious boating accident takes place in the crowded river mouth, Arundell said dipnetters should be limited to boat engines with no more than 50 horsepower. The Alaska Department of Natural Resources has already established such a limit in the Kenai River Special Management Area, which begins about a mile upriver of the Warren Aimes bridge. Arundell said the 50 horsepower limit should be extended downriver during the dipnet season.
Arundell said the proposal had been submitted this year to the Board of Fish, though it hadn’t made their agenda this year. He said he planned to resubmit it next year and asked for the city council’s endorsement. Although it would be the board’s rule, he said, it would make the most sense for Kenai to enforce it at the city boat launch.
As the popularity of the summer dipnet increases, so does the number of vendors offering food and services, which is prompting the city to consider creating a formal spot for them.
“Each year vendor activity increases during the fishery, and (2016) was no exception,” Koch wrote in his presentation.
Koch’s count of those offering refreshments and services to the dipnet crowd found three vendors operating from the north beach parking lot, one on the north beach itself, and one at the end of the new south beach access road.
“The administration believes activity has reached a volume where formal vendor areas and concession agreements may be warranted,” Koch wrote in his presentation. “The administration recommends working with past and prospective vendors to establish a mutually beneficial program for vendor activity during the fishery.”
Speculative measures mentioned in Koch’s report include designated vending areas, competitive bidding for vending space, and offering vendors exclusive permissions to sell particular menu items.
Jason Floyd’s Ammo Can Coffee trailer was the sole vendor working the south beach. Floyd, who unsuccessfully ran for a city council seat in this year’s election, said he had spoken to city officials and council members about creating more formal vending arrangements. Floyd made his coffee in a trailer parked outside the fee area and delivered it to dipnetters on the beach with an ATV — a method that required him to buy a daily $10 drop-off pass for entering and exiting the beach. He said he’d talked to city officials about placing his trailer inside the fee area to avoid the inconvenience of navigating the crowded fee gate, but said “there was limited space based on how they organized their traffic.”
“Running my business, I want to be where the people are, but the traffic pattern just wasn’t conducive to it,” Floyd said. “It was the first time they had to consider a vendor on the south beach, from what I was told … I went to the south beach because there were no vendors there. Last year I was on the north beach, and I looked across and there was this tent city over there with no vendors.”
This year’s dipnet fishery was also the first in which the southern river mouth had a direct access road. Previously, dipnetters arrived via a more distant road that required them to cross about a mile of private beach property to get to the river mouth. Koch said that expanding vendor areas on the relatively open south beach would easier than doing so on the more crowded north beach.
Floyd said that although developing more of the south beach could be difficult because of sensitive, protected wetland nearby, he believes there is opportunity to do so in certain locations. In any case, he said, vendor activity could be better organized.
In Thursday’s discussion, council member Jim Glendening spoke in favor of a solution to beach-access issues such as Floyd’s, and for north beach vendors who pay a $20 daily parking fee for their space: a flat-rate season-long beach access fee for vendors rather than the daily drop-off pass.
Fee-takers recorded a total of 22,338 transactions during the 2016 fishery — a 10 percent decrease from 2015’s 24,878 transactions.
Although this year’s transaction number was down, it was only a minor break from the steady rise Kenai has recorded in fishery participation. Nearly 17,000 transactions were recorded in 2013. Most of the growth has been on the north beach. In 2013, 6,515 transactions took place there, with 6,040 at the south beach and 4,424 at the city dock. In 2016 there were 11,800 north beach transactions, 5,805 on the south beach, and 4,732 at the dock.
Though the number of fishery participants has changed, their breakdown by geographic origin has largely remained static. According to zipcode data gathered from participants by fee shack attendants, a little over half of them continue to come from Anchorage. This year, the amount of Anchorage-zipcoded dipnet transactions was 59 percent, identical to those recorded in 2014.
This year’s local breakdown is within a few percentage points of what the Clarion reported in 2013. By zipcode, 6 percent of dipnet participants were from Kenai. 5 percent were from Soldotna, and another 5 percent from other areas on the Kenai Peninsula. Matanuska-Susitna Burough zipcodes contributed 15 percent of the dipnet transactions, the rest of Alaska 4 percent, and other states 6 percent.
Reach Ben Boettger at email@example.com.