Board of Fisheries fails to protect Kenai kings

Mark Hamilton, president of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) recently opined that the Board of Fish (BOF) meetings had produced a “clear victory for Kenai kings.” I disagree, and believe that any objective person would disagree as well.

Many have suggested that the blame for lack of kings lies with the offshore fisheries. Scientific studies show that minimal interception actually occurs (Google:  NOAA Technical Memorandum NMFS-AFSC-244).  Others suggest that Cook Inlet setnet interception is the culprit, but science does not support this theory either: Alaska Department of Fish and Game statistics illustrate that Cook Inlet setnetters catch less than 13 percent of the second run and 0 percent of the first run.

This leaves reasonable observers with one rational conclusion: In-river habitat of Kenai kings may be stressed to a near breaking point.

A recent study (Google: Turbidity Monitoring on the Lower Kenai River) illustrates clearly that turbidity caused by power boats elevates water quality to unacceptable state and federal standards. This fact was ignored by the board. 

Dirty water is bad for salmon, especially kings who, for the most part, spawn in the mainstem of the Kenai. The banks of the Kenai have been chronically eroded during the past 30 years as a direct result of wakes generated by up to 600 boats per day. This powerful fleet of commercial guides has targeted kings on their spawning beds for more than 30 years. Thousands of hooks per day are deployed directly on spawning beds for most of the summer. The attendant noise pollution, exhaust and wakes do not contribute to a successful spawning experience for kings.

The BOF could have taken some steps in the right direction to improve the quality of life for kings in the river. They could have implemented more “drift only” days. They could have provided for spawning sanctuaries. But they did not.  

The reason? Mark Hamilton’s KRSA lobbied the board to deny these actions. Does this sound like a conservation group to you?

The BOF process has been lauded by some as an open and democratic process. Sure, everyone is allowed to speak, but the lobbying happens behind the curtain and most actions are predetermined prior to the obligatory public testimony.

In essence, KRSA and their paid staff in collaboration with a cooperative BOF, control the details of the commercial fisheries management plan in Cook Inlet; a commercial fishery that provides 5 percent of the global production of wild sockeye. Raise your hand if this makes any sense to you.

You may have heard about the proposed initiative that, if approved by the courts, would eliminate setnetting in Cook Inlet. This is the initiative brought forward by KRSA founding father Bob Penney that would, if passed, eliminate more than 500 working families in Cook Inlet. This initiative was sponsored by many KRSA present and past board members, including current president Mark Hamilton. Eliminating setnetters will never solve in-river habitat problems.

The Endangered Species Act, in federal law, is designed to take action to protect a species when one or more of the following factors exist: 1) damage to, or destruction of, a species’ habitat; 2) over utilization of the species for commercial, scientific or educational purposes; 3) disease or predation; 4) inadequacy of existing protection;  5) other natural or manmade factors that affect the continued existence of the species. I believe that most of these five factors exist and have existed on the river for many years.

With awareness that the early king run in the Kenai has been virtually decimated without any interference whatsoever from commercial fishermen, perhaps it is time to look beyond the BOF process for meaningful relief for Kenai River king salmon. Putting political considerations ahead of sound scientific management is morally, scientifically and intellectually wrong.

In the final analysis, the Kenai kings may pass onto the endangered species list at the hands of those who have created the illusion that they are protecting them.

Frank Mullen is an Alaskan, a longtime commercial fisherman and businessman, and former Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member. He lives in Homer.