Kenai kings face long odds, but it’s not too late

The Kenai king controversy has connected some dots for me. I was born in Alaska in 1950 and raised on the banks of the Kenai River. I have collected empirical data (“a source of knowledge acquired by means of observation”) with regard to Kenai kings and the Kenai River for 63 years. I have  witnessed the changes: the tendency over the past 40 years towards overuse, overharvest, and in-river habitat destruction. 

There have been all kinds of warning signals for many years that the Kenai king (and more importantly, the in-river habitat) is in distress, but the Board of Fisheries has not looked at the big picture, preferring instead to tinker with “small ball” actions such as slot limits or the use of barbless hooks or escapement goals.

The fact that Kenai kings for 40 years have been not only interrupted but aggravated on their in-river spawning habitat by up to 600 boats per day seems to be of little concern to the regulators. There is no sanctuary for spawners. Why would it be a mystery that Kenai kings are in trouble?

The serious erosion of the river bank caused by large boats throwing off wakes all summer long has received little discussion. The riverbanks are a critical part of fish habitat.  In my lifetime I have observed the slow motion destruction of the riverbanks. Where there once were continuous mats of grass, alders and vegetation, there are now major gaps where cobble exists and the finer particulates have been washed away by boat wakes. In the area of the river that I haunted as a youngster, I estimate that 30-40 percent of the original riverbank is now gone.  Yes, this is empirical data. I am unaware of a scientific study that verifies this, but you need only look at other river systems in Alaska (the upper Kasilof, for instance) to develop a comparison to the destruction that has occurred on the Kenai.

While connecting the management dots, take a look at razor clam populations on the East side of Cook Inlet. This was once a vibrant and productive area, as any “old timer” would attest to. Today, the clams are few and small.

The cause? From my empirical notebook, in a word, overharvest.  For 40 years, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries maintained bag limits that were too generous and not sustainable. For 40 years, every series of low tides between April and September brought many thousands of diggers to these clam beaches. We heard occasional assurances from the “clam scientists” that all was well, or that a winter storm was the problem. The real problem: Clams were harvested at a rate that was not sustainable. They were unable to reproduce at a rate that would provide for return to abundance. The Board of Fisheries took no corrective action until recent years, and now it may be too little too late.

With no adequate science, the short term interests of the harvester took precedence over any thought of maintaining a sustainable clam population. We have reached such a point of decline due to inadequate management that, until we begin acting and legislating for the benefit of a particular species and its habitat rather than merely slowing its decline, its eventual demise becomes a probability. 

Most species require a minimum biomass in order to remain healthy and dodge the occasional curveball from Mother Nature. Consider herring in Prince William Sound.  The Exxon Valdez oil spill knocked them for such a loop that they still have not recovered.  Seemingly, since no one knows what that tipping point is, fish and game managers should always err on the side of the species in question. 

As a general empirical statement, the Board of Fisheries has made decisions over the years based not on good science or conservative intent, but based on politics and constituent pressure. The hatchet job done by a sport fish group on a sitting board of fish member who was reappointed last year is example enough about how “the political game” is played. 

Hundreds of examples of mismanagement over time exist, and it is unfortunate that those examples go unheeded by our resource managers. Both coasts of the United States illustrate examples of deficient or nonexistent management. Fish species that once were prolific are now  nonexistent or endangered.  

It  could be argued that people a hundred years ago were unaware of the negative  consequences of overharvest, habitat destruction and lack of sound management, but that is not an excuse today. 

In the case of the Kenai king, the in-river habitat went from pristine in the  mid 1970s to adversely impacted today. I watched it happen. The massive numbers of boats (up to 600 per day), gear and fishing pressure has virtually eliminated any possible sanctuary for a spawning king.

Yes, offshore trawlers catch Kenai kings. Yes, setnetters and other commercial  fishermen intercept a few Kenai kings, but not to a degree that explains the  dramatic failure of the early run of kings in the Kenai which has not had any commercial fishing pressure for more than 50 years. Since it took 40 years to bring the in-river habitat to its current disarray, will it take 40 years to repair it? Maybe not, if fisheries managers are bold and decisive with rulemaking that includes drift only fishing and sanctuaries for spawning kings.

Many of the errors of the past may be too late to correct. Let’s make sure  it is not too late for the Kenai king salmon, which will undoubtedly be gone soon if the in-river riparian habitat is not protected and corrected. The Board of Fisheries must not gamble on the future, but take decisive action to improve the in-river spawning habitat. 

Frank Mullen was born on a homestead on the banks of the Kenai River and is  the son of one of Soldotna’s first families. Mullen has been a sport and commercial fisherman all his life, a businessman and served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly for three terms. He lives in Homer.