By Joseph Robertia, Redoubt Reporter
They come by four-wheeler, car, truck and RVs. They line the shore, shoulder to shoulder, in queues hundreds of people long, each holding a large hoop net in hand. Farther out on boats, and even the occasional jet ski, still more people motor along, holding nets underwater. The Kenai River dip-net fishery is only three weeks long, but it annually brings a frenzy of fishing activity to the area, and an associated frenzy of efforts by area managers to manage and protect the natural resources, as well as those who come to harvest.
According to data collected by the city of Kenai, 83 percent of Kenai River dip-netters are not from the peninsula.
“The numbers for this season are still not in, but I think we’ll find the first week of the fishery this year will be equal to weekends in other years, that Saturday (July 19) was huge. Sunday it tapered off a bit, but it has been comparable to recent past years since then,” said Kenai City Manager Rick Koch, in terms of the number of dip-netters observed so far this year.
Participation in this fishery has grown exponentially since 1996, according to data from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. In 1996, 14,576 personal-use dip-net permits were issued to state residents, of which an estimate of 10,503 household days were fished at the Kenai River, amounting to 107,627 salmon caught.
By contrast, in 2013, 35,211 total permits were issued, of which 33,193 household days were reportedly fished at the Kenai River, amounting to 354,727 salmon caught (compared to 8,556 household days fished at the Kasilof River, amounting to 88,233 salmon caught).
This increase in dip-netters at the Kenai brings with it an increase in impacts to the area, not the least of which is managing the carcasses from the hundreds of thousands of salmon caught and cleaned on site.
To contend with the costs that come with managing the fishery, the city of Kenai established a fee system at access points of the south-shore beach, north-shore beach and the city dock. Fees range from $10 for a vehicle to drop off dip-netters and $20 for day-use parking up to $55 for overnight parking including camping.
According to city data, in 2013 — which had the greatest annual activity to date, until this year’s data comes in — the city generated nongrant revenues of $440,185, and nongrant expenditures of $438,911 (and both of these values increase by $233,107 if grant revenues and expenditures are included). The latter of these included personnel costs associated with the fishery, communication radios for the police and fire departments, a truck for the Parks and Recreation department, purchasing an additional tractor and rake, as well as numerous other maintenance and operational costs.
Bob Frates, head of Kenai Parks and Recreation, said that the second tractor has really helped to rake fish carcasses off the beach, which entails dragging them down the beach at low tide to form piles small enough to be moved out with the fast-flowing water when the tide comes in.
“From a maintenance perspective, this season is going very well. We saw the crowds we expected during the big push, but we had the tractor raking on both sides throughout the night,” Frates said.
Still, high winds combined with an excessive amount of fish carcasses led to some huge fish piles washing back up July 21 and 22.
“They raked for 12 hours straight until they got it cleaned up,” Frates said.
Another problem that popped up this season is the growing number of dip-netters parking along the bike route on the north side of the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge — where there is no fee — and then walking across sensitive Kenai River flats habitat of the Kenai River Special Management Area to and from the water.
Koch said that the Department of Transportation and the Department of Natural Resources are the governing bodies of this area, and he petitioned them to put up “No Parking” signs and lower the speed limit in this area during the dip-net season.
Neither was able to happen in time for the 2014 season, but he hopes for change during future years.
“I’d like to meet with these other agencies in the offseason, face to face, to devise a more comprehensive plan for that area,” he said.
More people in town for the dip-net fishery also means more calls to the Kenai Police Department, and Police Chief Gus Sandahl said that this year was no exception. He, along with the 17 other officers in the department, including six enforcement officers temporarily brought in for the summer season, work varying shifts throughout the week to handle the increased activity.
From noon Friday until midnight Sunday, dip-net related calls for service included eight parking problems, two reports of harassment, one issue of traffic flow/congestion, one medical issue, five 911 hang-up or open-line 911 calls, one report of theft, two reports of an ATV in a prohibited area, one vehicle stuck on the beach, three lock-out assists, one motor-vehicle crash involving an ATV and a vehicle, one crash involving two boats, one vehicle crash in a parking lot, one report of lost property, one report of found property, one report of trespassing, one dip-netter in distress, one missing child and one lost child, Sandahl said.