Gulls descend on cleaning tables

Cries of “fish on” and the splash of jumping silver salmon are welcome signs that after years of no activity, the Nick Dudiak Fishing Lagoon is once again a hot spot on the Spit.

Nearby cleaning tables, complete with running water, are equally busy as fishermen from the lagoon, known as the Fishing Hole, and anglers returning from a day of fishing in the open water clean and fillet their catch before heading home.

Then there are the gulls. Lining the roof of the nearby restrooms. Standing on parked cars. Crowding around the rim of the trailer where fishermen discard fish carcasses.

They splash in puddles of water. Fill the air overhead. Get under foot. Elbow their way onto the cleaning tables. Leave white fecal streaks in their wake. 

“Maggots of the sky,” said Norm Schneider of Homer, as he cleans salmon amid the hovering horde. “They’ll grab fillets right off the table.”

Next to Schneider, Joel Sewell cut his fresh-caught salmon into chunks. Formerly from Anchorage and now a resident of Alberta, Canada, Sewell said not having a fishing buddy with him at the cleaning table means he can’t turn his back on his task for fear a gull will make off with what he worked so hard to take home.

Has that really happened? Yes, Schneider and Sewell were quick to confirm.

Next to them, Danielle Law hosed out a cooler with city water available from the provided hose.

“The sound is the worst,” said Law of the screeching throng of gulls.

Asked what it would take to put a roof over the cleaning station and add protective strips of plastic as has been done at two fish-cleaning stations provided by the city of Homer, Harbormaster Bryan Hawkins said, “I would love to fix those tables. That’s the short answer. I would love to add more table space, fix the drainage and put a roof over it.” 

Then, there’s the long answer.

“Nothing is cheap,” said Hawkins. “It’s $15,000-$20,000 by the time you get done.”

Hawkins tried to drum up financial support from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, but was unsuccessful. However, those conversations raised the issue of rerouting the cleaning table’s drainage to Kachemak Bay. 

“The pad actually drains into the lagoon and that’s a concern,” said Hawkins. “It puts blood in the water there, which actually enhances the algae growth.”

Another option would be to plumb the cleaning tables’ outfall to the city sewer system, resulting in additional costs.

Hawkins also discussed the situation with U.S. Department of Agriculture personnel responsible for keeping wildlife away from the Homer airport.

“We did a facility tour and they said, ‘Look, you’ve got to remove the food. They’re there for the food. You remove the food, the seagulls will move on,’” said Hawkins.

That has proven true at the city’s two cleaning stations near the harbor. 

“When we put roofs over them, we thought it would take care of it, but it didn’t. But when we built a reversible bird cage — we go in and they stay out — it worked,” said Hawkins of adding the protective strips of plastic. “So I’m absolutely convinced if we enclosed those tables and the (carcass) trailer, those birds would move on.” 

Improving the cleaning tables at the Fishing Hole doesn’t actually fall within Hawkins’ portion of the city budget.

“I send employees over there to clean it and haul the guts away, but really it’s a general fund expenditure,” said Hawkins.

Carey Meyer, the city’s public works director, is aware of discussions concerning improvements for the Fishing Hole cleaning tables.

“It’s going to end up in my court to actually make it happen,” said Meyer. “Where the money would come from is always the critical component, but probably something does need to be done. … I would hope we’d be able to design something this winter and make an adjustment out there that might help that problem.”

Birds were in the news earlier this month when the Alaska Department of Environmental Conservation announced that ongoing sampling showed elevated levels of bacteria on the Kenai River beach. 

“The reason for the currently elevated levels of bacteria is unknown, although tests in 2012 indicated that the majority of the bacteria come from birds with a small percentage of bacteria originating from humans and dogs,” the press release said. “Potential sources are birds feeding on the beaches and mud flats during low tides, a large bird rookery located upriver from the beach, dogs, and humans.”

Tim Stevens with ADEC in Anchorage said the situations at the Kenai River and at the Fishing Hole are dissimilar.

“Up at Kenai, we’re seeing hundreds if not thousands of birds,” said Stevens. “Of course, there’s more mixing water, too, at Kenai, so that makes a difference.”

Water sampling through a federally funded grant was conducted near the end of the Spit and at Mariners and Bishop’s beaches in 2008, 2009 and 2010. Only one reading indicated follow-up testing should be done.

“We got one hit at Bishop’s Beach that said to sample in another year and we did and it came back fine,” said Stevens. “To tell you the truth, the only beach we’ve had problems with is Kenai.”

Of the situation at the Fishing Hole cleaning tables, Stevens said, “They’re using tap water to clean the fish, so it really shouldn’t be exposed to any bacteria as far as the fish itself being contaminated.”

In addition to rinsing fish, Stevens said, “Of course, always cook your fish.”

Carol Kerkvliet, a fishery biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in Homer, also noted the difference between Kenai and the Fishing Hole.

“Kenai has a volume that is quite a bit different in terms of gulls and fish waste. Also the (Homer) Dumpsters are emptied on a daily basis,” said Kerkvliet. “That said, (the Fishing Hole) is on our radar.”

In addition to enclosing the tables, Kerkvliet noted discussions with the city regarding moving the cleaning tables’ outflow to the outside of the lagoon or rerouting it to empty into the city’s septic system.

It all comes back to funding, however.

“But with the improved returns that we’re seeing (in the Fishing Hole), I think it has elevated itself as something that we need to continue to look for funding to make it happen,” said Kerkvliet.

Bob Shavelson, executive director of Cook Inletkeeper, said he has received no reports that “there’s a specific public health hazard” at the Fishing Hole cleaning tables. Agreeing they are “very exposed,” Shavelson noted the “nice job” the city did with the protective barriers at the two fish cleaning stations near the harbor.

As Schneider used a spray of water from the hose to fend off an approaching gull and Sewell protected his freshly caught salmon, it wasn’t how to separate the gulls from the cleaning tables that occupied their minds. It was simply doing it.

“I hope something can be done,” said Sewell.

McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at