By Paul Dale
Alaska’s wild salmon runs are part of what makes our state and community distinctive. They differentiate us from almost all other coastal regions in the world. Fishing — whether sport, commercial, subsistence or personal use — is part of our heritage.
The key to sustaining a natural resource like salmon is regulatory stability in terms of business planning and long-term investment. The absence of that is a significant problem in Cook Inlet, particularly in the Kenai River, because of salmon allocation issues that have been loudly debated for the past several years. With the past few seasons of poor king salmon returns, the intensity of the debate has grown. Last year, Kenai River sport fishermen, along with east-side setnet fishermen, were closed down to preserve king salmon for spawning.
Without doubt, we are in a period of low abundance of king salmon in several Alaska rivers. However, the Kenai River king fishery is not at the risk or in the crisis that high-profile sport fishers would like us to believe. Though king numbers are low, late-run, post-season analysis by the Department of Fish and Game showed that the 2012 closures on the Kenai River were unnecessary and were the result of previously misunderstood salmon counting and run-timing issues. In fact, late-run Kenai River king salmon escapement goals have been met in each of the last 25 years, and exceeded in nine of the last 10 years.
Are the king salmon smaller? Yes, but for a variety of reasons, including an overcapitalized, in-river, guided, professional sport fish industry that systematically targets large king salmon. The absence of trophy kings may not correlate directly with a smaller run.
To create long-term solutions to the allocation dispute, the Alaska Salmon Alliance is talking with the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission and the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. We are reaching out to personal-use fishing organizations. The salmon alliance was created in 2011 and is committed to pushing for scientifically based fishery management, geared toward preserving — for all users — Alaska’s unique salmon culture.
We are not a part of the lawsuit filed by the Cook Inlet Fisherman’s Fund. We want compromise not contention. The salmon alliance is hoping for meaningful dialogue throughout the fall and winter. We’d like to build a consensus on some of the king management issues and then share that with Alaska’s Fish Board and state resource development managers, as well as the Alaska Legislature. All user groups benefit from a consistent, coherent policy that protects salmon stocks for today and tomorrow.
In hopes of providing more information on the value of the commercial fishing industry, the alliance funded a northern economics study to identify the financial effect of the commercial Cook Inlet salmon fishery. We weren’t sure what we would find, but the report tells a positive economic story:
The accumulated harvest value between 1980 and 2011 was $2.15 billion (in 2012 dollars). In 2011, the Cook Inlet salmon fishery was larger than all salmon fisheries in the Lower 48 combined, created more than 5,000 Alaska jobs and added $102 million in direct value to the Alaska economy.
The full report is available on our website.
The value of this regional industry goes well beyond dollars and cents. It grows our communities. The Cook Inlet salmon fishery creates an opportunity for Alaskans to learn a trade that is handed down from generation to generation, family to family.
Salmon and Alaska are inextricably linked. Whether you wet a line with a fly, bait or spinner, put a net in the river, or set or drift a net in saltwater, we need policies that allow this unique resource to be shared by all and sustained for coming centuries. That’s the goal we’re working toward.
Paul Dale has been a commercial fisherman all his adult life. He is president of the Alaska Salmon Alliance. He and his wife, Brenda, own Snug Harbor Seafoods. He has served on the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and is a former Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute export board member.
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