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The demise of the Kenai River king salmon

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Kenai River King salmon may you rest in peace.

We have taken away your biggest and your best. We have over-fished you and we have badly mismanaged you. As sport fishermen, are we sorry — probably. Will we do anything about it before it’s to late — probably not. At least not as long as the last vestiges of your species remains the focus of our almighty tourism dollar.

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Throughout the years we caught many of you that were trophy size (over 55 inches in length) but not anymore. Between 2003 – 2007 we averaged 6 per season but after that we only caught one trophy in 2009 so it’s probably safe to say that we have succeeded in elimination of the largest members of your population.

Are we sorry for this — probably, but we sure have a lot of nice brochure pictures and wall mounts around town to show for it. The photos also look great in our local newspapers and websites.  Don’t plan on being world famous too much longer though, the word is getting out that you’re not really that special any longer.  By the way, we can still catch your largest members and still keep them most of the season.  Kind of like we did with the passenger pigeons and buffalo.

Many of us believe that when history is written your demise will be blamed on two prominent factors.

First, we developed a sport fishery that became dominated by an unlimited commercial guided fishing component that was driven by an ever-demanding tourism market. To this date people and agencies are still reluctant to admit that they are over harvesting your stocks and rebuff any notion of accepting any conservation measures that might hurt their booking capabilities.

Additionally, the emergence of a power base initiated by this tourism / guide lobby coalition, with their immense financial resources and influence, became the controlling factor in your management. They eventually controlled the entire regulatory and management process from the Governor to the Board of Fisheries, including the ADF&G and DNR Commissioners and their upper level managers. Unethical practices ran deep.

You know the outcomes of this polluted process.  A slot limit that did not do enough to protect larger spawning females, no closures on important mainstem spawning areas, and no vision of how to control limits on growth of the fishery.  The list goes on — including habitat issues such as water quality, turbidity, boat wake erosion, etc..  In fact, regulations were passed that kept the worst wake producing large boats on the river with more horsepower because that was the industry standard.

Ultimately, these organizations also developed a strategy that if they could achieve regulation changes aimed at putting additional fish in the river through commercial fishing restrictions and closures then they would not need to address in-river conservation measures to protect you. Of course, as you know, this philosophy failed miserably because it only produced a few additional fish that could then be harvested off of your unprotected spawning beds.

Second, State and Federal agencies responsible for your wellbeing failed to protect you when you needed it the most. They simply became resolved to the fact that political pressure to support the sport fishing industry had become to great for them to overcome and they did not have the desire or will to change the status quo.

Public officials set aside their mandate to protect the resource — trading it for political gain and in the case of ADF&G for agency funding.  Fishing opportunity and increased license sales took priority over conservation.

In addition, ADF&G would not admit for 25 years that they could not count your members with any degree of accuracy.  This led to a significant increased risk of over harvest which ultimately contributed to your demise.

To make matters worse, in 1996 the BOF authorized a new “Personal Use Dip-net” fishery that resulted in even more harvest potential. It all started innocently enough with a small annual harvest of a few hundred of your brethren, however, as this fishery grew to accommodate over 20,000 households the harvest grew to between 1,000 to 1,500 annually.

In the end, you figured that when your numbers got so low the agencies would surely step in to protect you but that didn’t happen either. They were caught in a catch-22. They were influenced by the tourism industry to keep allowing harvests in the established manner and they couldn’t verify their counting methods to show just how low your returns actually were. Everyone familiar with the river knew they weren’t seeing many of you in your traditional spawning areas anymore, but those anecdotal observations were largely dismissed.

I’m truly sorry that this happened to you. We should have heeded history, but we were just to busy trying to make a living off of you. We failed to properly protect you and fully appreciate how special you really were. Don’t worry though, because we now have an economic engine that needs to be fed so I’m sure there will be demands calling for your genes be cloned in some hatchery somewhere to enhance your legacy in the Kenai River.

When this occurs it will be a sure sign that we truly failed you.

Dwight Kramer is a “Joe Fisherman” private angler and concerned resource user who has fished the Kenai River since 1983.

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