By Jenny Neyman
The signs being waved by Cook Inlet commercial set-net fishermen during several days of rallies in recent days outside the Alaska Department of Fish and Game office on Kalifornsky Beach Road, as well as in downtown Kenai and Soldotna, are a range of adroit to plaintive to biting, and most bluntly succinct:
“Let us fish,” they decry to the Fish and Game officials who issued an order July 17 that, as of Thursday, curtailed the set-netters’ commercial fishing season for sockeye salmon before it had even really begun. Some fishermen had been able to fish three tides, while others only got their nets wet once.
“Unfair,” “Take back our river,” and, “Honk if you love set-netters,” read others, encouraging support from onlookers, whether they be Cook Inlet commercial drift-net fishermen, professional fishing guides, guide clients, dip-net fishermen or private sportfishing anglers; neighbors in the community or neighboring Kenai Peninsula communities, state residents from elsewhere in Alaska, or visitors from out of state and beyond.
All of them — Kenai drift-netters, Sterling fly-fishermen, Anchorage dip-netters, Soldotna guides, Texan guide clients and German rod-and-reel sportfishermen — still have the ability to fish for the abundant run of sockeye salmon heading into the Kenai River. It’s just the set-net fishermen who sit with their nets high and dry, denied access to the sockeye fishery from which they make their living, in the name of conserving a low return of late-run king salmon.
“We feel like we’ve been doing a very uneven burden-sharing in this conservation. We’ve got the brunt of it. We’re basically the only user group that’s not involved in this sockeye harvest that’s going on right now,” said Robbie Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association and a set-net fisherman at South Cohoe in Kasilof since 1981.
Paul Shadura, with KPFA and a third-generation commercial set-net fisherman on the east side of Cook Inlet, put it even more bluntly than the most sharply worded signs:
“We understand conservation. We’re not interested in fishing unless the fish are available. We reluctantly take those burdens. We don’t exactly accept what the department’s evaluations are — we think they’re very flawed — but to take that opportunity completely away and decimate all these families is a disaster, and what we feel is allocative in nature,” Shadura said. “It’s just an aberration for the department to implement this without even consideration for the communities and the fishermen in those communities. This will be a reverberation for the rest of our lives, and for some of us — like myself who are third-generation fishermen and whose family has been here for over 100 years doing this on the beaches — to decimate us and put us out of business is a travesty.”
Without fishing work to attend to, set-netters have an abundance of time to protest, rally support and stew over the questions they’d like answered. They find most of the answers being offered to be bitter pills to swallow. Many explanations they question or quibble with, if not reject altogether.