Story last updated at 5:21 p.m. Thursday, June 13, 2002

King restrictions could aid locals
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Anglers seeking the ultimate Alaska game fish <> the Kenai River king salmon <> are feeling the bite of a dismal early run, which on Tuesday prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to close the Kenai River to king salmon fishing.

The news of the closure hit hard in the communities of the Central Peninsula, where sport angling and guiding brings in millions of dollars.

However, the ripple effect of anglers heading further south in search of kings might amount to some extra business for outfitters in Ninilchik, Deep Creek, Anchor Point and Homer.

Though the level of economic disruption is impossible to gauge exactly, the closure of the Kenai almost certainly means the Lower Peninsula fisheries will see more angling pressure over the next weekend and beyond.

"There's going to be some displacement of fishermen who will take advantage of the opportunities that are available (down the road)," said Larry Marsh, assistant area biologist from Fish and Game's Soldotna office. "If we squeeze a balloon in one area it's going to bulge somewhere else."

Fortunately, there is an extra place to turn in the search for a king. Fish and Game opened the Ninilchik River to fishing for an extra weekend, though anglers are only allowed to keep hatchery king salmon and bait is not legal.

Beyond the Sterling Highway streams, there is the very real possibility that high-rolling tourists and hard-core locals geared out to chase the renowned Kenai kings, which are the world's largest, might set their sights on the Fishing Hole. That fishery, a man-made run of 2,000-3,000 fish on the Homer Spit, is already one of the most dependable spots to cast a hook and line for kings.

Some anglers may also put more effort into fishing the saltwater fisheries, said Homer-area Fish and Game biologist Nicki Szarzi.

Given the unpredictability of natural cycles, it is not at all unusual for Fish and Game to restrict salmon fishing. In fact, on the Kenai River, there have been restrictions on early-run kings in seven of the past 14 years, according to the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. Those numbers anchor the argument for the early-run catch-and-release concept because they show the run to be in trouble, advocates say. Imposing a catch-and-release-only designation for the early run is the best way to simultaneously keep people fishing and protect a weak run of fish. The status quo doesn't seem to be solving the problem, said Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

"There's got to be a better mouse trap," said Huber, before admitting there are many differing opinions on how to rebuild the strength of the run while allowing locals to fish and promote the Kenai as a major sport fishing destination.

"There's as many opinions out there as there are salmon. Actually, there's more opinions than there are salmon," he said.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries is currently considering the idea a no-kill early-run king fishery for next season. Meanwhile, Fish and Game, which worries about the mortality of fish caught and released, has no plans to allow the practice this season.

As of Tuesday, the sonar counter showed 3,100 kings had entered the lower Kenai River. Even with the closure, Marsh said, it didn't look good for achieving the minimum escapement goal of 7,200 fish.

Marsh said fishing options on the Kenai Peninsula could get slimmer in coming days as fisheries managers consider what to do with the Kasilof River king salmon fishery, where they had hoped to reduce catches. The fear is that increased angler pressure will erase gains made with restrictions enacted earlier this year.

Stay tuned.