Tuesday, July 10, 2012

A "brief" update...

've been writing a lot about all of the cool things I've been getting to do this summer in Alaska, but there are a couple of things that I've been wanting to post about. I just haven't had room in any of the other entries!

This may be a bit lengthy, and few (if any) pictures. Apologies in advance...

First, I wanted to discuss this "perfect storm" of events that has hit the Kenai Peninsula, which has closed the sport fishing on the rivers. Alaska, and most specifically, the Kenai Peninsula, has relied on sport fishing for local subsistence, and then tourists dollars to support it's people and the economy. Every summer probably tens of thousands, or more, flock to the Kenai for the amazing salmon and trout fishing. If you've ever seen a picture like this:

Photo credit: Alaska In Pictures: Combat Fishing

 ...it's probably been taken where I live this summer. People will stand shoulder to shoulder, and anchor boats gunwale to stern to bow for as far as the river allows to catch their trophy fish.

Over the past...10, 20, X amount of years, commercial fishing in the ocean has almost depleted the salmon stock. It's impossible for many to imagine, since they've seen MILLIONS of fish migrate upstream year after year. What many may know, but don't make the connection to, is that these fish that spawn upstream: die. As soon as the eggs are laid and fertilized, both males and females are literally exhausted and starved and die. It's a suicide mission with good intent. These fish make the trip hundreds or thousands of miles round trip from birthing grounds to ocean, and then BACK again to the same spot, years later. It's amazing to me, as it has been to many others. I'm sure there are books, articles, literature all published on this phenomenon for more reading if you're interested.

Anyway, for any angler reading this right now, or hunter for that matter, you're well aware of all the regulation surrounding taking game- whether it be fish, bird, mammal...and apparently some amphibians (in NY, maybe other places too?,) that are considered game species. They have to be a certain age, size, sex, in a certain area, during a certain time of year, etc etc etc. It can be frustrating, but I would gander that more are willing and do comply, than not.

[I hope I'm not going too off base here, this is what I've learned from the biologists here...]

Commercial fishing outfits have very few regulations like the regs that I mentioned above. They use huge nets and drag the ocean, catching anything that's unlucky enough to be in it's path. Endangered species, untargeted species, big fish, little fish...everything. And there's no being picky either, so everything they pull in: dies. This has been a sore point for many activists over the years, and I can understand why. I've seen pictures here of "the catch", it's disgusting AND, as I've discovered, completely unsustainable.

The age class of salmon that should be coming back right now, specifically king or Chinook salmon, just isn't. Major portions of the Kenai River has been closed to sport fishing, and this is the primo salmon fishing time of the year. Thousands of anglers flock here specifically to fish for these salmon, and I see parking lots full of RVs, campgrounds full of tents- and these people made the trek for nothing. I said that the other day to a guy on the refuge trail crew, and he said "Well they can always go hiking, or something else...it's not a total lossof a vacation", and while I guess that's true- there are many people who come here specifically for salmon fishing. And if you've had the trip planned for months, like my family would have, there would be major disappointment and financial loss. And those are just the tourists!

What about the people trying to make a living off of this natural phenomena? All of the hotel owners, restaurant owners, B&B owners, and mostly the fishing guides! I've heard that guides can and do make upwards of $1,000 a DAY, 6 days a week. And since the fishery has been closed since July 1st and a reopen nowhere near in sight, they are losing major dollars. Some of these people make their yearly income in just a few months, so they totally rely on the tourists to come and fish. It's devastating.

For those of you in NY, this is a lame comparison...but imagine if the Adirondack Park closed all of it's campgrounds for the summer. With nowhere to stay, the tourists wouldn't come, no business...crippling side effects.

The second part of the perfect storm, that's kind of subsided now, is the amount of water making it's way through the river system. The Kenai Peninsula apparently had record amounts of snow fall this winter season, which is still quite evident up in the mountains. In early-mid June there were quite a few nice, sunny, mild days (which was melting all of that pack), and then mild, torrential rainfall (which also melted the pack). The rivers were swollen, swift, and resembled chocolate milk. The few fish that were making it upstream from the ocean, had to combat the current and turbidity.

I didn't quite understand the scope of this problem, until I started asking questions of the biologists. I also visited the local watering hole last weekend and struck up a conversation with some locals. When they found out who I work for (US Fish & Wildlife Service), they started peppering me with questions about the fish. The USFWS often gets confused with the AK Dept of Fish & Game (ADF&G), as the names are so similar, we "do" many of the same types of things, and just to make things worse- the offices are next to each other on the strip here in town. These guys were guides, and were telling me their side. Luckily, it all stayed pretty amiable. When I retold this story to the biologists in the office, they told me to NEVER tell people where I work, especially at a bar. The natural resources are such an important part of life here, that people get very hot about it, and can/will take it out on the wrong people. I kept telling them that I was a lowly intern from NY. I had the same information that they were receiving (ADF&G makes the calls anyway, NOT FWS), and I had no perspective to commiserate with them. This is my first experience here, and I'm disappointed in the lack of fish for selfish reasons, I want to see the craziness of Combat Fishing like in the above picture!

Ok, that's enough I think. This was just such a huge part of my experience here that I had to document it. My poor field journal has gone by the wayside (as it always does...horrible journal-er), so the blog was it.

The other thing I wanted to share were my species lists! I'm getting there :) I've decided to keep track of the easiest three: birds, mammals, fish.

Mammals Birds Fish
Beaver American Dipper Chinook Salmon/King
Black Bear American Robin Dolly Varden
Caribou Arctic Tern Pacific Lamprey
Coastal Mountain Goat Bald Eagle Rainbow Trout/Steelhead
Coyote Barn Swallow Round Whitefish
Dall's Porpoise Belted Kingfisher Sockeye Salmon/Kokanee
Mink Black Oystercatcher 3 or 9-spine stickleback
Moose Black-billed Magpie
North Pacific Humpback Whale Black-capped Chickadee
Porcupine Black-legged Kittiwake
Red Squirrel Blackpoll Warbler
River Otter Bonaparte's Full
Sea Otter Boreal Chickadee
Snowshoe Hare Canada Goose
Stellar Sea Lion Common Loon
Wolverine Common Merganser
Common Raven
Commun Murre
Dark-eyed Junco
Double-crested Cormorant
Downy Woodpecker
Fox Sparrow
Glaucous-winged Gull
Gray Jay
Hermit Thrush
Northern Harrier
Northwestern Crow
Orange-crowned Warbler
Pelagic Cormorant
Pine Grosbeak
Red-necked Grebe
Sandhill Crane
Spotted Sandpiper
Steller's Jay
Tree Swallow
Trumpeter Swan
Tufted Puffin
Violet-green Swallow
White-crowned Sparrow
Wilson's Warbler
Yellow Warbler
Yellow-rumped Warbler


  1. Great post and sorry to hear about the fish closures. I know I would be really bummed if I had that trip planned and couldn't fish...although I'm sure the beauty of Alaska would help me forget about it.

  2. Your post sure makes the issue of over-fishing very obvious. I hope that the salmon populations recover. It seems like the dragging of huge nets needs to be controlled more... I hope that the Grizzlies aren't suffering from the lack of fish.


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