A man was crucified last week for harvesting a 70-pound King salmon on the Kenai River in Alaska.
The Kenai is arguably home to the largest King (Chinook) salmon in the world. But did you know there are 40 (yes, forty!) different species of fish in the Kenai besides King Salmon? And literally hundreds of thousands of fish.
The Kenai River is 82 miles long with an average depth of about four feet in many areas, but depths reaching twelve feet. You just can't tell because the opaque color is as deceptive as its flow. In tidal sections, the lower 13 miles, the river can reach depths of twenty-four feet. However, my nephew, who lives in Soldatna, will venture out into the river on foot, in late October, where you can almost cross it by wading, to harvest "hardware" left by the thousands of anglers who descend on the river each year.
The river is awe-inspiring. Its majestic opaque turquoise color is the result of super fine glacial silt reflecting in the long summer sunlight, against an almost tropical forest of greenery that is hard to imagine just a few months earlier being nothing but feet of snow. (Zinc and copper concentrations from pollution are cause for alarm over the last several years, but I find no data to support these elements being the reason for the color of the river.) You really can't imagine this until you see it, and when you see a huge red King Salmon swimming in it-it's just something altogether heart-stopping.
At its widest, the Kenai is some 390 feet across. Its average flow is 5.800 CFS, but can easily achieve 17-25,000 CFS with rain, snow melt and glacial dam breaks. (The glacial dam circumstance is pretty cool to think about.)
There are volumes of data for the Kenai, and most of the Alaskan waters. Likely the result of many years we've impacted the river for "sport." Regulations for fishing alone require an almost daily review, even if you're a local resident who has lived there 40+ years. Stream bank restrictions, hook size, fish type, size where you can use a motor on a boat, where you can and can't use an anchor, whether you can use bait or not, what fish you can keep and where, how big, what it has to look like before you take it home-in case you're inspected and you tried to fillet out the fish before you leave. Other do's and don'ts like if you catch a King over 20", you can't fish from a boat for anything else that day-period. And, these regulations can change almost instantly if the technology used (sonar) to measure fish coming into the river, and other flow data, indicate the fishery might be harmed. During my recent trip, fliers were posted everywhere regarding the King salmon closure and the few days it was open and what foot you had to have in the water and where, in order to fish for Kings-practically. I spooked a huge beautiful fish half out of the water while fishing for trout on the Ninilchik. She hung out in a pool below. I bowed in awe and respect and moved away.
The "King runs" are monitored every day, sometimes more than once a day, by every single angler who is after these fish. Even if they aren't from Alaska, they know to check the "sonar" to know when the best time to fish will be. I think there's even an app for it! When I was there, my nephew and brother-in-law speak fluently in Fish. Every kind. Usually it goes something like: "7100 through sonar this morning-too low." "8300 yesterday, 24,000 this morning, tomorrow should be good."
The sonar used on King salmon somehow has the capacity to measure fish over 34 inches. (How cool is that?!)
The data has indicated a historical drop of approximately 75% of the King/Chinook populations in recent years. That's presently about 4-6,000 fish over 34" in the early run (April/May), and 17-23,000 fish (July/August). Yes, there are still hundreds of thousands of fish still moving through the water under 34", including Kings in the 20-30 inch range, but the sonar is trying to detect 34-plus. I'm still shaking my head in wonder.
In 2003, Alaska Fish and Wildlife required that when you harvest a King salmon over 55 inches, (approximately 71.5 pounds), you have to have it "sealed" (certified) by a Fish and Wildlife employee - size, weight, gender-I suppose this is because the number of larger Kings that are really the strongest and most healthy gene pool were on a rapid decline.
In the last 9 years - nine years - only one King (Chinook-onchorynchiss tshawytscha) was "sealed" over 55 inches at 71.5 pounds. I'm guessing many more have been caught, but they were likely immediately released or simply never recorded. But at this writing, I'm only a six-day Alaska novice.
In the old days, no one got crucified for killing a fish because they were feeding their family out of necessity. But we aren't in the "old days" anymore, are we?
Alaskans are some of the best stewards of their home environment. They don't stand on pedestals and claim to be "green" environmentalists, and their highways aren't littered, as they are here in the Bay Area-even though they don't have the kinds of "recycling" programs Californians boast about. California has the most recycling laws of any state. Alaskans know how precious these resources are because their survival depends on it. I've seen stewardship that is natural, common sense, not because it is a law. I saw accountability amongst each other that was instinctive, not "required"; a care for the environment that supersedes anything I've ever experienced in the lower 48.
While in his legal right, the poor fella posted his 51.5"/70-pound King catch, complete with the guide service name and phone number emblazoned across the boat he was standing in, on Facebook. It went viral, to say the least. The crucifixion was swift. I suppose, as most have indicated, the guide service should have known better. Maybe they have a good reason for having to finally haul the fish into the boat. (For the record, the fly that caught the 71.5 pound King was also harvested). I suppose it will come out in the final bankruptcy proceedings - wait - that's a different topic. I mean, in the guide's reporting of the catch.
I was telling my nephew we have similar challenges on the San Lorenzo, but we talk in hundreds of fish and the difference in CFS measured in 5 or 10 - He looked almost terrified - probably hoping nothing like that ever happens to his home waters. But I'm encouraged to continue to do my part to keep helping us here in California. It is, after all, my home environment. And I can't wait to get back to Alaska! See you at the BBQ!