Capt. Mark Spencer of AK eXpeditions dipnets for salmon on Alaska’s Copper River, one of several waters in Alaska that are considered for personal use, which is defined somewhere between subsistence and sportfishing, making it a rather complicated industry. (AK EXPEDITIONS)
The following appears in the August issue of Alaska Sporting Journal
BY TOM REALE
Every year, tens of thousands of Alaskans take part in what the state defines as “personal use” fisheries.
There are 80 of these not-exactly-subsistence and not-exactly-sportfishing opportunities around the state. In various fresh- and saltwater spots, locals try to fill their freezers with a variety of fin- and shellfish.
In Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound, shrimp and shellfish are the primary fisheries open to personal-use rules. Other options in the state include herring, hooligan, crab and clams in Southcentral; salmon, crab, scallops and abalone in Southeast; and salmon and whitefish in the Interior.
These unique fishing venues are restricted to Alaska residents. How they came about is a lesson in resource management, economics and, of course, politics.
On the popular Kenai River, fishermen pull a salmon out of one of the many nets that line the shore. In the salmon fisheries, permits are given per family, with each household allowed 25 fish for the head of household and 10 more for each additional dependent. (TOM REALE)
DIVVYING UP ALASKA’S RICH supply of natural resources has always been problematic. Whether it was the exploitation of sea otter pelts or the pursuit of gold, timber, oil or fish, the law of supply and demand has run roughshod over the state. A series of boom-and-bust cycles has enriched some and impoverished others, leaving behind what seems to be a pretty shallow learning curve.
When it comes to fish, especially salmon, the state has been trying for generations to allocate the resource among user groups. In the early days of territorial rules, commercial fishermen set up scores of salmon canneries all over coastal Alaska, and everyone competed to catch all the fish.
One especially devastating method of harvesting salmon commercially was the fish trap. Constructed of wire fencing and wood pilings driven into the ground, they were placed in the path of incoming salmon. According to an article in the Alaska Fish and Wildlife News on the Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, “They were one of the most efficient and effective ways to harvest salmon, but combined with poor federal management, they were a little too effective. In fact, the traps were responsible for catching so many fish, that by the late 1940s, they had decimated most of the salmon runs. By the time fish traps were outlawed in the late 1950s, the damage was done.”
Eventually, reason prevailed and rules and regulations were adopted to keep the commercial fishing outfits more or less in line. Seasons, catch limits and gear restrictions were put in place to preserve a state of equilibrium in the salmon fisheries.
With the coming of statehood and the influx of population from Outside, other user groups began competing for fish. Native subsistence fishers and recreational angling concerns wanted the state to guarantee that there were enough fish left over from commercial exploitation for their use.
The political history of the subsistence issue is a long and thorny one. Beginning in 1960, the state defined some fisheries as subsistence and used the label to set aside certain hunting and fishing resources for “customary and traditional” uses.
The idea was to separate primarily Native Alaskans and rural residents from both sport and commercial users. The law was meant to guarantee that groups who relied on the fish and game for their primary sustenance would have first crack at the resources.
In 1978, the federal government got involved with the passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA), which limited subsistence rights to rural residents.
And, of course, legal and political wrangling ensued. Today, federal agencies have one set of subsistence laws on lands that they manage, while the state defines and manages the issue on state and private lands and waters. And as new issues present themselves, more laws are passed and almost always find their way into the state and federal court systems. It’s pretty messy and still evolving.
Then in the 1980s, the state set aside hunts and fisheries for “personal use,” resources that didn’t fit the definitions of subsistence, sport or commercial use. According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations, personal-use fishing is defined as, “The taking, fishing for, or possession of finfish, shellfish, or other fishery resources, by Alaska residents for personal use and not for sale or barter, with gill or dip net, seine, fish wheel, long line, or other means defined by the Board of Fisheries.”
Currently, these fisheries don’t receive priority over other uses – they’re opened and maintained only when there’s a “surplus” of fish to be harvested.
Personal-use fisheries are open only to Alaska residents holding sportfishing licenses. In salmon fisheries, permits are given per family, with each household allowed 25 fish for the head of household and 10 more for each additional dependent. The permits are free, and each day’s catch is recorded before leaving the river. Separate permits for the Copper River and the Upper Cook Inlet fisheries are required.
While shellfish and shrimp fishing are popular in Southeast and in Prince William Sound, nothing comes close to the efforts put in for salmon. The Copper River fishery at Chitina and the Kasilof and Kenai River fisheries on the Kenai Peninsula are the big dogs in the system, attracting thousands upon thousands of participants every year.
Interest and participation in these fisheries has been growing substantially. In 1996, there were about 15,000 permits issued for the Upper Cook Inlet rivers alone. By 2013, that number had grown to over 35,000 and continues on an upward slope.
When we first fished the Kasilof in the 1980s, all of the nets we saw were either long-handled salmon landing nets or homemade contraptions. These were made up of copper tubing, PVC pipe or aluminum tubes with shovel handles or even crutches stuck on the end.
Today, you still see quite a few imaginative designs on the river, but now there are welding shops advertising all manner of nets for sale. And you know that dipnetting has gone mainstream when you see the nets for sale at Costco.
Local resident Jake Weaver’s precarious spot on the edge of the fast-moving Copper River demonstrates that being careful is critical to avoid an accident. One of Weaver’s fishing partners actually fell into the river during one trip, but he was unhurt. (JAKE WEAVER)
THE FIRST DIPNET FISHERY to open was at Chitina, home to the now world-famous Copper River red salmon. The first opening every year is between June 7 and June 15, depending on the strength of the early run. Dipping the Copper River can be very challenging. It’s a big, scary, muscular river that occasionally claims the lives of unwary or careless fishermen.
After fishing the Kenai and Kasilof for years, Jake Weaver went to the Copper for the first time this year. He found it to be more than challenging. While the Kenai and Kasilof have very much of a beach-party vibe – kids running around on the sand, and lawn chairs and recliners scattered among the coolers and dipnets – on the Copper, people take ATVs down the river on a sketchy trail and tie themselves to trees while wrestling long-handled nets in the powerful current. It was definitely not a beach party.
“They call it dipnetting but I refer to it as cliffhanging for salmon,” says Weaver, who managed to get 17 fish and his buddies limited out, but it was an adventure. “Just the 5-mile trail going into the canyon on my ATV was exciting, to say the least. I saw lots of people being pretty careless and almost losing their rigs, if not their lives. Then when we were cleaning our fish, one of my buddies fell into the river but we got him out pretty quick. If I go again, I’ll be better prepared (and carry) lots of rope, better footgear and the right kind of net.”
For those without ATVs who want to get away from the roadside crowds, there are several charter outfits on the river. You can either pay to fish from a boat for the day or have them drop you off downriver and arrange for a pickup later on.
Compared to the potentially treacherous Copper, the Kenai and Kasilof River fisheries are a cakewalk. You’ll be surrounded by hundreds if not thousands of Alaskans, all taking a gentle sloping walk into the (relatively) slow current – a far cry from the death-defying adventure on the Copper.
The Kasilof opens in late June and the Kenai on July 10, with most of the fishing effort and success coming later in the month as the run builds.
The rules for dipnetting salmon are quite strict, so ignore them at your peril. Gear use is subject to net and mesh size and depth-of-bag restrictions. Fish must be marked by cutting off tail lobes, permits must be marked, certain species of fish must be returned to the river, etc. Considering that multiple people are ticketed for failure to follow the rules every year, don’t let this be you.
While the Copper River’s personal-use fishing is all business, it’s more of a “beach party” vibe on the Kenai, although since this is Alaska it’s a little different but a festive atmosphere all the same. (TOM REALE)
SUCCESS IS LARGELY A MATTER of timing. If you’re there when the fish are running and the setnet and driftnet commercial operations haven’t scooped up too many, chances are you’ll score. It’s important to have the proper gear; even on warm and sunny days, the water is cold and you’ll be standing in it for hours.
Chest waders are a must since you won’t be able to get your net out far enough wearing only hip boots. Warm clothing, sunscreen and perhaps waterproof gloves will complete your ensemble.
Pick out a spot not too close to your fellow dippers and head into the water. “Close” is a very relative term, as during the peak of the runs, dipnetters are bunched up pretty tightly. Observe how others are fishing and behave accordingly.
For the most part, people are quite friendly while marinating in the river waiting for fish, and as long as you don’t jam yourself in too closely and stick your net right in front of another one, you should be fine. Little communities of dippers tend to form, with people sharing tips, congratulating each other when fish are netted and commiserating when the fishing is slow.
When you feel a fish hit the net, give a backward jerk on the handle and pull it onto the beach. Untangle it from the webbing, give it a bonk on the head, and pull or cut a gill to bleed it. Before putting it into the cooler, trim the tail fins according to the regs (the details are on your permit). And don’t forget to fill out your permit before leaving the beach – add a pencil or waterproof pen to your gear before leaving home.
Dipnetting for salmon and accessing the other personal-use fisheries in the state is an excellent way for residents to fill their freezers and stockpile seafood for the long, cold winter ahead. But, like the signs say at the all-you-can-eat buffets, “You can eat all you take, just don’t take more than you can eat.”
Just because your family of four is allowed to harvest 55 salmon a year doesn’t mean you have to take that many. Too often, people go salmon-crazy when the fishing is good, only to wind up dumping the excess the following year when the new runs begin.
If you’re respectful of the resource and follow the laws, we’ll all have salmon for generations to come. ASJ
Netting fish to feed the family is the name of the game, but it’s important for those who use personal-use fisheries to just take what they need and not overdo it. (AK EXPEDITIONS)