Fishermen, scientists and homeowners debate how best to protect Southcentral’s most popular salmon stream
My float trip down the lower Kenai River begins in town, at Soldotna Creek Park. It’s May 2, and heavy ice still armors the bank in places. The sight of the blue pontoon boat is bound to be a curiosity this early in the year.
“Oh, yeah, we’ll definitely get a couple of double-takes as we’re going down,” says Robert Ruffner, my guide and man on the oars.
The river is low, barely deep enough in places to keep us afloat. The sun wards off the chill as we drift about seven miles, past deserted subdivisions, RV parks and boat ramps. The day belongs to the birds—common mergansers, goldeneyes, mallards, Bonaparte’s gulls, a young bald eagle on the ice at river’s edge.
It’s a tranquil trip, one that belies the Kenai River most people know. In a few weeks, this part of the river will triple in size, and hundreds of buzzing boats will churn the milky blue glacial water. The riverfront will come alive with people, and huge crowds will build. Most of the activity coincides with the river’s famed salmon runs.
In many ways, the Kenai in summer is a fight—fish fight to spawn; fishermen fight for the best fishing holes, parking space or turn at the boat ramp; scientists fight to protect the river’s fragile habitat; riverfront homeowners fight to protect their little piece of heaven; and everyone debates endlessly how to protect the river for the future.
The Kenai has been a major draw for more than five decades, roughly since Alaska became a state in 1959. It is the most heavily fished river in Alaska, and crowding is as high as that on any river anywhere, experts say. And the multiple pressures on the Kenai are unlikely to abate, said Ruffner, who heads the Kenai Watershed Forum, a nonprofit that tries to balance the interests of economic development, the environment and all fisheries user groups while focusing on education, research and restoration along the Kenai. Ruffner is not the only one who thinks that way.
“Kenai recreation use is a classic ‘tragedy of the commons’ situation, where there are few incentives for individuals or groups to constrain their own growing use, even though the collective impacts will inevitably degrade the resource,” reads a 2010 study prepared for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources.
But the outlook is not entirely grim. Good progress has been made in recent years to protect water quality and fish habitat, and to control pollution and riverfront development. And while users have indicated in surveys that the Kenai River experience has been degraded to some degree by the crowding, the river remains a premier Alaska sportfishing destination and is likely to retain its appeal so long as visitors have a chance to land a monster king salmon, a limit of reds or a trophy rainbow trout.
At 82 miles, the Kenai is far from Alaska’s longest or mightiest river. Its popularity owes largely to its ready road access. It’s an easy drive from Anchorage to the Kenai, and good roads follow its banks. Alaska has many fine fishing rivers, but they’re simply not as accessible as the Kenai.
The Kenai flows west across the Kenai Peninsula, and includes three river segments. The Upper River flows 17.3 miles between two enormous lakes, Kenai Lake and Skilak Lake. Along this stretch is the Kenai Canyon, with whitewater worthy of the most experienced floaters and kayakers. After leaving Skilak Lake, the Middle River runs 19.5 boulder-strewn miles to the Sterling Highway Bridge in Soldotna. From there the Lower River meanders 21 generally gentle miles to the wide mouth at the city of Kenai, where the river empties into the Cook Inlet. The last few miles are tidally influenced.
The river’s marquee attraction is its king salmon. In 1985, a Kenai angler caught one weighing 97 pounds, 4 ounces—a world record for a king taken by rod and reel. The kings return from the sea each year in two runs, mid-May and July and support an intense sport fishery. On the Lower River in late July, it’s common to see 450 boats on the water, often concentrating on stretches or holes with a history of good catches. Typically, more than half the boats carry guides and paying clients, most of whom live out of state and spend money in the communities along the river before and after fishing.
But it isn’t all just tourists fishing for trophies; experts estimate that the Kenai River’s salmon runs generate as much as $78 million annually. The runs not only provide work for guides through sport fishing, they also support a large set-net and drift-boat commercial fishery in Cook Inlet, which in turn fuels jobs at canneries, spends money on fuel, boats, motors, boat storage, food and housing in the community, and pays local taxes on its boats.
Sources of Conflict
Guiding is one of the most contentious issues on the river. Some private anglers feel the guides are crowding out “Joe Fisherman,” getting their way too often with regulators and contributing to a decline in the average size of kings.
“The king fishery, as far as I’m concerned, it’s ruined,” said Dwight Kramer, a retired air traffic controller living in Kenai. “We’ve just allowed too much commercialization.”
Kramer is part of an organization called the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, a nonprofit that counts a number of retired state and federal fisheries biologists on its board and pledges to protect the fishing rights and resources of the average river user.
The coalition sees another nonprofit group, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, as a rival. KRSA is best known for its Kenai River Classic, a three-day invitational fishing event each July. Alaska’s late senator, Ted Stevens, co-founded the fundraiser, which attracts corporate executives, Cabinet secretaries, members of Congress and other VIPs. While critics contend the Classic is little more than a paid opportunity to lobby powerful policymakers, KRSA says it has netted millions of dollars that it has used for Kenai habitat restoration and other projects.
KRSA and other groups see guiding as an important service, one that brings a measure of order, experience and efficiency to the crowded river.
“The state has a process by which it allows people to guide on the river, and it’s the most stringent in the world,” said Joe Connors, a veteran guide who operates a lodge and fishing charter service in Sterling and is active in the Kenai River Professional Guide Association.
To obtain a state permit, new guides must take a five-day college course focusing on safety, conservation, and guide ethics and behavior. Connors said Kenai guides generally are courteous, and he dismisses as emotional rhetoric the idea that guide boats are muscling out private boaters. Sure, the river can feel tight on certain days, but “if the regular boater is skilled enough, he should be able to operate just like me,” Connors said.
Still, some believe the number of guides should be limited. But a move a few years ago to cap the number of permits the state issues was turned back after opponents sued. Relatively weak king returns in the past three seasons have only heightened tensions along the Kenai.
Problems at Both Ends
On the Upper Kenai, at the confluence with the Russian River, hundreds of wading anglers stand shoulder to shoulder each weekend, in what’s known as combat fishing. Overuse there has resulted in excess riverbank erosion, which state and local authorities have made efforts to repair in recent years.
Humans must also share the upper river and its fish with numerous bears—a potentially dangerous source of conflict that authorities have attempted to minimize with limits on how far into the woods fishermen can legally go, rules requiring fishermen to keep a close eye on their food and the fish they have landed, and policies for disposing of fish waste.
In recent years, an even bigger spectacle has developed at the mouth of the Kenai: the dipnet fishery, open only to Alaska residents. As many as 15,000 people wade into the mouth to intercept red salmon with long-handled nets in the span of a few weeks each summer, intending to fill their freezers with some of Alaska’s bounty. Dipnet regulations allow a head of a household to take 25 red salmon, plus 10 more for each additional resident of the home.
The city of Kenai sees the dipnet fishery as a blessing and a curse. On one hand, it brings significant spending to the town. But the city must spend heavily to police and clean up after the crowd.
“Our version of Woodstock,” said Rick Koch, Kenai city manager.
The city charges $15 per car to park and $20 to use a boat ramp and, in 2010, the dipnet fishery generated $287,035. But expenses consumed most of that money, with the city facing continual capital needs such as improved restrooms.
The dipnet fishery has brought other problems, as well. Elevated levels of fecal coliform bacteria have been detected in the mouth of the Kenai River, believed to come from gulls feeding on fish waste left by dipnetters.
The fishing pressures along the Kenai and its associated problems—riverbank trampling, erosion from boat wakes that ruins natural fish habitat and silts the river, crowding around the best fishing holes, unnecessary human-bear encounters, and pollution—have inspired talk of measures to limit access to the Kenai. Ideas include boat access permits or zoning regulations to better separate conflicting users.
About two-dozen rivers in North America have permit systems, some, such as the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon, with much lower user density than the Kenai. The Deschutes River in Oregon uses an online registration system to spread visitors across slower days. Not surprisingly, Kenai users generally aren’t enthusiastic about constraints. Almost three-quarters of users and guides surveyed in 2009 said they feel crowded some of the time on the Kenai, but 68 percent said they would never support boating use limits or that such limits are not needed now, according to a recreation study conducted for the Alaska Department of Natural Resources. Likewise, users showed little support for a river registration system.
Considerable effort has been made by many concerned parties into rehabilitating and enhancing the Kenai’s riparian zone—the land along the river’s edge. Gradually, the river is shedding the sins of the past—attempts to control erosion or gain access with jetties, junk cars and “barrels full of God knows what,” said Dean Hughes, a habitat biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Hughes is an evangelist for habitat preservation. He works to educate and inspire property owners, especially new ones, on protecting the Kenai riverfront.
Some erosion is good and natural on the Kenai. River travelers will see high bluffs sloughing gravel and trees toppled into the water—all are beneficial for fish habitat. Juvenile king salmon rely on a rough, natural riverbank with woody debris and overhanging vegetation to provide shade and refuge from the current and predators. In contrast, mowed lawns to water’s edge, or boardwalks that block light for plants, are habitat killers. Through a joint federal-state program, landowners can bid for partial reimbursement on projects to repair and protect Kenai habitat. The cost-share program has funded some 500 projects, with budgets ranging from $500 to $100,000. The money has been used for root wads, cabled spruce trees, willow planting and elevated, light-penetrating walkways to stabilize and protect the riverbank.
Efforts have been made to stem the accelerated erosion caused by boat wakes, as well. A study found that bank loss in non-motorized segment of the river—the Upper Kenai, where only drift boats are allowed—was about 75 percent less than that in the highest boat-use area of the lower river. In 2008, new state regulations went into effect raising the horsepower limit on boat motors from 35 to 50 horsepower, based in part on research showing boats laden with five or six passengers tend to create less damaging wakes if a more powerful engine allows the boats to plane more efficiently. This change was made in conjunction with a phase-out of older two-stroke motors that tend to deposit much more unburned fuel into the water than cleaner burning four-stroke engines. The fuel is toxic to salmon and trout fry, as well as aquatic insects that fish eat.
Other important steps have been taken to protect the Kenai waterfront from threats such as development and trampling. In July and August, selected sections of riverbank are closed to fishing to protect fragile fish habitat. And the Kenai Peninsula Borough has imposed a 50-foot setback rule for building.
Meanwhile, the struggling economy has provided the riverbank some relief. Recent demand for unimproved Kenai River property is down considerably as the influx of Lower 48 residents willing to pay $265,000 for an acre river lot has ebbed, said Dale Bagley, a former borough mayor and co-owner of Redoubt Realty. And I can see evidence of that as we float the river: “For Sale” signs seem nearly as numerous as the ducks, although Ruffner, the guide on my early season float trip, sees plenty of potential for a building boom, in a state known for its boom-and-bust economy.
While it’s not clear which direction these issues will take, what is clear is that there are a large number of people, and organized groups, who care deeply about the Kenai River and its fishing resources. The question facing them is how to balance private property rights with common-trust resources; commercial and sportfishing demands with environmental concerns; economy with ecology; development with conservation. It’s a question being considered every day in numerous communities and about numerous resources across Alaska—the Kenai River is just the most popular and accessible place under discussion.
—Wesley Loy is a freelance writer based in Anchorage. He wrote about the Knik River bridge project in the July/August 2011 issue.