Saturday, July 21, 2012

Re-post from 3 & 1/2 Years Ago: Two Rivers - The Kenai and the Yukon

[When I wrote this article I was wondering "If the shit hits the fan on the Kenai, something might finally be done on the trawler bycatch issue?"  

The shit HAS hit the fan on the Kenai.  I was there to watch part of it unfold Wednesday:  

The gillnetters had been outside the river for days, with an emergency opener for them thrown in, under pressure from the Parnell administration.  Inside the river, thousands of Alaskans who come to the river's confluence with destiny were there, with their contraptions.

The contraptions vary from hoop-on-a-stick flim-flams bought Costco or Three Bears to fine dipnet poles guaranteed by their makers.  

People waded out in wetsuits, with fins, to hang over the edge of the offshore shelf.  If they caught a fish, they backpedalled, dragging their fish and net behind.  

On the river itself, hundreds of small boats, skiffs and rafts drifted up and down the river with the ebb and flow.  There were a lot of boats.

We caught a few.  It was fun and challenging.

Although the Kenai River is under intense pressure to produce hundreds of thousands of salmon for commercial, subsistence, personal uses and sports fishers, the reasons for such a low Chinook return this year are not known.  I suspect that offshore trawl bycatch wastage is the major culprit, that cannot be proven.  As long as non-White, mostly Alaska Native fishers were hurt by low Chinook returns, GOP governors Palin and Parnell didn't fret that much.  But now that mostly White fishers on the Kernai and Copper and a few other rivers can't catch Kings, something may finally be done.

We will see.]

Two Rivers - The Kenai and the Yukon

Alaska's Kenai River is 82 miles long. The river's volume output averages about 6,000 cubic feet per second. The combination of location, salmon abundance and natural beauty combine to make the Kenai River Alaska's most popular sports fishing destination.

The river is so important that the salmon fisheries of both lower Cook Inlet, of which the Kenai is a part, and upper Cook Inlet, are managed primarily in relation to how Kenai River sustainability and use can best be accommodated.

This Kenai River-centric fishery management history is one of the main reasons the salmon fisheries of upper Cook Inlet have slowly withered over the past generation or so. Kenai and Soldotna-based politicians and businesses have benefitted from the Kenai River-centric fish management and business paradigm.

Alaska's national congressional delegation, and such past governors as Tony Knowles, Bill Sheffield and Frank Murkowski have all supported this model, at the expense of the upper Cook Inlet's salmon stock sustainability.

The Kenai River's two Sockeye salmon runs are well-known, as are the river's Rainbow trout and Coho salmon runs. But the Kenai River Kings are one of Alaska's most famous fish. Only a few streams in Alaska boast larger average return weights than the Kenai. Those streams are quite small, though. About 65,000 King Salmon return to the Kenai River each year, making the return there the third largest among Alaska rivers.

The Copper River, with its annual commercial catch of around 40,000 Kings, and total return of around 70,000 or more, is the second biggest river in Alaska for Kings. 

By far, the river with the largest return population of salmon has historically been the 2,300 mile-long Yukon River. But that has changed dramatically over the past decade or so. A river that recently saw returning King salmon populations in the hundreds of thousands, will most likely be closed this year.

Sadly, it has been reported, that already in 2009, by-catch of Yukon River-bound Chinook (King) salmon in the Bering Sea already (in February!) has surpassed what will be the allowable catch of the entire Yukon River subsistence and commercial fisheries:

Already in 2009, bycatch numbers are climbing, according to reports from crew members out West, for salmon and halibut.

Imagine how Alaskans would react if, year after year, a Seattle-based, partially foreign-owned fleet came into the bottom of Cook Inlet, and dragged up over 75% of the salmon coming into Cook Inlet. Imagine if this fleet wasn't even there to fish salmon. Imagine if the crewmen either brought these Anchor, Kasilof, Kenai, Susitna and Deshka River-bound King salmon back to Seattle to go to the Salvation Army, or - if they needed all the space in the hold left, for more Pollock - threw the valuable Kings overboard while the observers aboard their ships were kept out of sight.

That is what has been happening in the Bering Sea for decades. It has gotten to the point that the Seattle-based trawlers are taking so much of the Yukon, Kuskokwim and other river-bound salmon in their by-catch, that there might well not even be a Yukon River season in 2009. Or 2010. Or - ever again.

Could this happen to the Kenai River? Not likely. If the salmon runs on the Kenai will die, it will be from other kinds of greed and hyper-development. We've seen how much resistance some user groups of the river and property along the river have taken to sound policies and initiatives designed to improve salmon habitat.

Why, then, are rivers closer to the Bering Sea being allowed to wither away, allowing communities that have survived, even thrived there for twice or three times as long as there has been an English language, to die? Or to be relocated to Palinesque strategic hamlets, to be called "Cluster Villages," where kids would be trained to perform for tourists.

No doubt, one of the song-and-dance routines would be about the salmon that used to come up the river. You can go watch Native American songs and dances like that already, down on the Klamath, Columbia, Snake and Fraser Rivers.

I'm not sure whether the Yukon and Kuskokwim cultures are being allowed to die almost as fast as Gaza more because they are non-White, or because they are out-of-sight, out-of-mind.


Upper Kenai River
Sen. Lisa Murkowski with trophy King
Abandoned gillnetter near Nunam Iqua
riverside housing development near Kenai


HarpboyAK said...

If those urban white folks want their fish sticks or "Krab", they should get them from a pot fishery, not trawlers.

Draggers ruined fishing on the East Coast, and now they have ruined it here. Thanks, Uncle Ted, your boy Bennie, and all their Japanese & Norwegian friends.

It's time that subsistence fishers from the Yukon show up at the Governor's Mansion in Juneau to beg for food. Maybe then it will finally hit home to Sean.

Anonymous said...

Yes, it is time for Yukon folks to make their way to Juneau. This is just WRONG. It is outrageous and unacceptable.