Cook Inlet’s commercial fisheries define region’s culture, traditions

Summer is almost here and there is a very obvious tension on the Kenai Peninsula related to the role of salmon in local communities and how to qualify what that role is among different user groups.

Yes, we eat a lot of fish here and the availability of salmon to anglers is important. Salmon is a fabulous source of food, superb nutritional value. Everyone should eat it. However, to suggest that it is a real subsistence product for anglers is questionable. 

The fight over who gets what and how to divide access between sport and commercial fisheries is complicated. There are all perspectives of voices and identities ramping up to fight it out. The conflict and bitter commentary on this is distressing.  It is so convoluted by money and politics and the role of tourism on the Kenai from Anchorage and Mat-Su visitors.

I admittedly support the commercial view. Commercial fishing is an important occupational opportunity in our region of Alaska. We have some of the biggest ports in the nation right here. The commercial fisheries are what create a substantial component of community identity in places like Homer, Kenai, Ninilchik, Kodiak and Seward. 

This doesn’t even include all of the other communities in the state where local fishermen commute to and from for other fisheries. Ports like Dutch Harbor, Nak-nek, Valdez, Cordova, Sitka and Petersburg also are essential to resident livelihood. It’s critical to maintain sustainable commercial fishing opportunities.

The best way to do that? Work honestly to understand the complex challenges and concerns of the environment and the species within it. 

Everybody wants that. Of course, the commercial industry wants that, they want a sustainable industry. They want to trust state and federal management agencies and scientists in various organizations to perform high quality research that will help maintain sustainable fisheries.  

Other than the role of income, the history and culture of commercial fisheries also are considerable features to sustain. The Kenai Peninsula has seen a tremendous history of canneries and buying stations since well before Alaska statehood. I believe that salmon are just as important to a sense of identity here as cod was to the big port towns on the East Coast. In those harbors, the memory of cod runs through the veins. Think of the whale ships there. That was culture. It will never be forgotten. Huge museums are built to demonstrate this. The love of boat designs remains. 

We reflect that here on the Kenai Peninsula. Yes, sport fishing is relevant, but it’s not the face of the peninsula. It’s not the heart of what we want to sustain and keep resilient in the industry.

What we can all agree on is promoting sustainable salmon and trying to provide suitable portions to all interested parties in a way that demonstrates true use patterns of what the fish means. If the fish caught is truly for a sport trophy — that is not an example of subsistence or necessary personal use. That activity is merely acquisitive and does nothing to help the interest toward species preservation and habitat protection.

The factor of amusement and diversion in sport activity should not be considered a critical component and those who engage in it should not be considered an essential user group within modifications under consideration for necessary king salmon policy adjustments.

Emilie Springer is a PhD candidate at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and is a member of the National Science Foundation’s Resilience and Adaptation Program. She studies culture and policy of various state and federal fisheries in Alaska.