Greg Brush: Facts matter, and so do Kenai kings

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By GREG BRUSH

It’s really quite simple. It’s not easy… but it’s simple: Remove all emotion and focus on the facts alone when making difficult decisions that cannot possibly please everyone. 

No, I’m not talking about gun control or the dreaded virus; rather, it’s fishery politics in Alaska once again.

Cook Inlet set-netters have recently filed a lawsuit against the State of Alaska over the fisheries closure, claiming that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is managing the Kenai River to the benefit of other user groups, namely sport and personal-use fishermen. The leaders of the City of Kenai have chosen to enter this fracas, rather than just manage the city. 

Highly emotional, they are demanding that the State immediately reopen the fishery to the 400-plus set-net fishermen who are currently prohibited; repay them for lost revenue; and change the management plan at once. 

Whoa, Nellie — the fishery is closed for a reason and this lawsuit reeks of extreme emotion. 

The problem with extreme emotion is that facts are  often forgotten or conveniently overlooked when one acts with emotion and proceeds with rash actions, such as a lawsuit. 

The set-net fishery is closed because this year’s Kenai River late-run chinook salmon numbers are at historic lows, much like last year, and the year before, and so on.

Studies and data (facts) derived from studies show this is not the common ebb-and-flow of salmon runs nor an anomaly. It is a clear downward trend, in which the late-run will not meet its minimal, let alone its optimal, escapement goal for the fourth year in a row, truly threatening the future of the largest wild salmon on the planet forever. 

User groups are restricted presently so that this tragedy might be avoided. 

Personal use dip-net fishermen cannot retain a king. In-river private anglers, nor guided anglers, cannot wet a line for kings. Sadly, it is the east side set net fishery that is closed, solely because this methodology indiscriminately kills Kenai kings while harvesting sockeye. These restrictions are placed in effect solely for Kenai king salmon conservation. No less, no more. 

“But, but, but… in-river sport fishermen still get to fish for sockeye, and we don’t. That’s not fair!” you say. 

Life is not fair. I used to make a living guiding big, beautiful Kenai Kings, but now I do not, and that’s not fair. Honestly, fair is an arbitrary term, subject to interpretation. What’s fair to Bill, isn’t fair to Bob. 

Importantly, the word fair wreaks of emotion, and this country as well as this great state, doesn’t need more emotion right now. What we need is to get back on track with facts; managing our country, our state, our cities, and our precious fisheries through the proper process and the rule of law. 

About that, the State of Alaska, through its Department of Fish and Game, has this process called the Board of Fisheries, where all issues, concerns and regulations are addressed. Through that process, the management plan is created. 

To keep all this on track, within the Department of Fish and Game’s management plan are extremely important words such as “conservation” and “sustainability for the future.” 

In fact, if one actually reviews Fish and Game’s long standing mission statement, one will see that the second and third words within “Our Agency’s Mission” are actually the terms “protect” and “maintain.” 

That’s not by accident. Those two simple words are there for a reason (as is the process as well as the management plan) which is simply because protecting and maintaining OUR resource must always come before “use, user, allocation, opportunity, economy, etc.”

Mass emotion isn’t helpful. Nor are lawsuits, division or hatred in our community. We have far too much of that these days. 

Facts are facts and the data is clear: Late-run Kenai River kings just aren’t struggling; they are in clear peril and at the precipice of going the way of dinosaurs. 

The State, the Department of Fish and Game, and Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang need only to stay resolute and continue to prioritize one thing: conservation, conservation, conservation, in order to protect and maintain.

Don’t let the noise nor the disgruntled litigation of one user group distract you, sir… as the bulk of this community and this great State is willing to bear the burden of conservation to hopefully see our big fish rebound. 

Stay steadfast on your process, your principles, and your important mission statement, Fish and Game, making the choices and decisions that might give these iconic wild chinook a fighting chance to rebound, so as all Alaskans and all user groups might someday be able to watch their children, and their children’s children, enjoy the biggest wild salmon in the world. 

It’s not easy, but it’s simple. 

Greg Brush is a Kenai king conservationist, sockeye guide, and owner of EZ Limit Guide Service. 

35 COMMENTS

    • The author did not say he didn’t want the set netters earning a living. I don’t know a lot about this subject so am just trying to see the facts through the emotions and opinions of alot of people. Just because the author is a guide doesn’t mean he can make a rational judgment based on the facts. Do you disagree with what the state is saying about the decrease in the run over the years? If that is true and it becomes open to the set netters who catch more at one time than an individual, what happens when there is no more run? This is a serious question of which
      inquiring minds would like to see an answer.

    • Dear Sir, I am not against anybody nor any user group. I have good friends that are commercial fisherman I respect them and their way of living and their chosen occupation. Why would I be against these great families? What I am against though is a lawsuit that goes against the process and the management plan. I am also against something that places one user group above another. But most of all I am against trading one resource for another resource. It just makes no sense in my lil guide brain. Peace out brother, have a great day.

  1. Good article Greg.
    Nobody has ever guaranteed I will catch a King Salmon whether with a rod, dip net or set net. The document I receive from the State says fishing license. The license gives me an opportunity to try to catch a ’fish. The limited entry permit that the ESSN’s receive provides only some degree of exclusivity among commercial fishers to try to catch salmon. Catching is simply not promised. Ever!
    The ESSN fishers make interesting arguments. Normally they claim that over escapement is harmful to the resource. They say it is biologically bad and results in lower returns. But now they claim “ It ain’t “fair” if anglers and dip Netters can catch Red Salmon and they can’t. They ignore the fact that catching salmon by anglers and dippers puts fish in their freezer and on their table. And at the same time reduce the so called over escapement problem that they claim exists. So, over escapement is only a problem when the ESSN fishers cannot catch the fish.
    Secretly these commercial harvesters will say that the King Salmon should be sacrificed in favor of allowing harvest of the Reds. They would rejoice in the elimination of our State Fish if it meant more opportunity to catch Reds.
    Greed may take down the mighty Chinook.

    • Just Maybe “Alaskans First” their is a correlation between the massive decade long consecutive years of Sockeye over escapement and the reduction of king salmon. Political mismanagement of the Kenai River over sound biology also probably has something to do with demise of Kenai Kings. Slot Limits, over exploitation of resource by exploding number of “Sport Fishing Guides, and dramatic increased of “in river” traffic contribute to problem. You always are quick to point finger at commercial user groups but I think you need to look in the mirror!

      • Steve, really?
        Your mantra of “ over escapement” and blaming the guides as the reason for the collapse of the King runs seems to always be the fall back position of the Commercial gill netters. Never do I read or hear that they take any responsibility. Never!
        It is very well known that many King drop outs occur, yet are never counted. It is also well known that the Comm fishers catch Kings but often do not report them.
        The reality is that there have been very very few Kings harvested in the Kenai River for many years. Yet during the same time the gill netters have indeed caught and sold lots of Kings.

        Be honest Steve. Don’t you believe that the Kings really need to go away so that the Comm harvest of more Reds can be achieved.
        The arguments of your Comm fish friends have been so disingenuous and knowingly wrong that they lack credibility. Why don’t you step up to the plate and be honest and just say that Kings need to go away. It would be refreshing to hear the truth.

  2. I’ve been somewhat baffled by our salmon predicament. It’s a what came first scenario, like the chicken or the egg. Have low return rates contributed to low escapement rates? Or vice versa? Perhaps they aren’t returning in the numbers they once did. This could be a couple factors, predation or overfishing. I have heard of foreign mega trawlers off our coasts just past the exclusionary zone. Nature is out of balance and as is the case with Puget Sound in WA state, sea lion predation is huge with huge sea lions being the result. Time for real facts.

  3. As a primarily catch and release fishing guide, I completely concur. Salmon are renewable until they are gone. While ADFG is bearing the weight of this delicate dance, the NPFMC is over run with typical federal burueacrats and industry. Salmon are a statewide issue. It is time for upriver communities to be represented in the governance of the waters surrounding Alaska. This means Oregon and Washington can go home to manage their own waters.

  4. Nicely said Greg! Fish & Game should never sacrifice the resource by failing to meet minimum escapement just so one user can pursue the almighty dollar

  5. It’s classic vulture capitalism. Allowing a favored entity to pillage an industry until they kill it. No regard for the aftermath.

    Why is the city of Kenai getting into this? Simple. They’re being paid to do so by net setters.

  6. No one in our country is “owed a job”. If people were truly concerned about the resource it would be their first priority but most all fisherman seem to have a greedy nature to them and I guess that translates beyond fishermen. The Kenai River once had the biggest kings in the world and in good numbers but now through poor management, greed and politics the resource is on its last legs. Hopefully the run will recover but with people in charge of things, good luck, we have a tremendous way of screwing everything up. The best thing that could happen to the king run would be to shut it down for four or five years and actually see what is there, but that is wishful thinking. The only thing that might save them now is the late returners after the 31st of July as long as the set netters are kept out of the water too. This problem is also aided by other issues which we can’t/won’t do anything about – high seas intercept and bycatch which is a travesty. My family has fished the Kenai since the early 1960’s and as with most everything else it just gets worse as time goes on. The sockeye used to bounce off the bottom of our boat at the outlet of Skilak Lake when the red return was real and overescapement was a word never heard.

  7. Sport fishing rules allow much higher escapement. Fish and Game’s mission is to manage Alaska’s food resource sustainably. Fish and Game considers data, biology and public input. Allowing fisheries to collapse would be disastrous to the very industries filing the suit for access. Hopefully, Fish and Game articulates this well in the suit and shuts it down simply and quickly. These opinions are my own and not that of any organization with which I affiliate.

  8. Until the over release of Hatchery raised Pinks & the Seattle Draggers are stopped from killing thousands of King Salmon & Chum Salmon there will never be a recovery! And the Greedy Commercial Fishermen in PW sound keep increasing the numbers of Pinks turned out into the Ocean to push the other species into extinction, ah but do they care apparently not! In my HumbleA—-Ed opinion

  9. I went dipnetting at Kasilof at the beginning of this month. Caught a nice number. Meanwhile, the setnetters were illegally camping hogging up the parking lot, and had more salmon drying on racks than I would ever think possible, including some kings. It is hard to feel sorry for the poor setnetters when they break the laws, dump their trash all over the beach, hog up the parking lot and still take kings, knowing they cannot be replenished. Clean up your act, and then maybe the rest of us, to whom those salmon belong equally, will take some sort of pity on your limited fishing rights. Until then, to bad, so sad.

    • Tamra – we are talking about different setnetters. I doubt if it was the East Side commercial setnetters who were clogging up the parking lot, leaving trash & drying fish there. Those were most likely personal use setnetters. Whole different breed!

  10. Actually this summer the set netters are the only user group getting hosed. Drifters had multiple back to back to back openings all day long last week. PU people saw the result, with not a lot of fish in the river on multiple days.

    There is a reason that UCIDA and ADF&G Commfish occupy the same building in Soldotna. They’re a bit sneakier about their close working relationship than they were under Bill Walker, but the favoritism in openings continues. Perhaps they ought not be co-located anymore.

    Final question for the Smart Guys: The river is stuffed with dollies and rainbows, both of which gorge themselves on eggs in certain times of the year. Given that the kings spawn in the Kenai, are we seeing an impact on fry production due to an overabundance of dollies and RT? Cheers –

    • Agimarc,
      You might want to check out the amount of fish the drifters kept out of the river, I’d be willing to bet it would shock you to find out. ‘https://www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=commercialbyareauci.salmon_harvest_current’

    • Another half informed individual spouting misinformation. PU people saw huge numbers go up the river including one day that saw record daily escapement. Drifters did get multiple days of fishing but restricted to a small strip of water off the east beach. This area is typically unproductive and I’d argue that most if not all drifters would much rather fish two days a week in the whole inlet to endless days on this strip. The Kenai has had over the biological escapement goal every consecutive year for over a decade. What the heck more do you want ‘agimac”? People like you won’t be happy until commercial fisheries are extinct in Upper Cook Inlet. I don’t get the mentality of screw the commercial guy whose got a lot more invested in the fishery probably for generations than weekend worriers such as yourself

  11. For over a hundred years the Kenai Kings managed to exist & yes, even thrive amidst commercial fish traps, setnets and drift gillnets. It was only when the industrial sportfishing guide industry descended on the Kenai River in the 1980’s that the King runs started to struggle. What can possibly go wrong when fishery managers allow an unlimited number of commercial guides to target the biggest salmon on their spawning beds?

  12. Let’s stop all fishing in Cook Inlet for 5 years. Nobody catches anything. We are in this mess because of failed policy’s and greed. Any future fishing should be done with a pole and single hook including the Commercial fishing group. No nets of any kind.

  13. “……..Remove all emotion and focus on the facts alone when making difficult decisions that cannot possibly please everyone……..”
    You’re addressing a society that can’t even agree on what a woman is, while it simultaneously pulls its hair out over woman’s rights. It’s well beyond just emotion now. It’s sanity itself.

  14. The big kings were not taken from the reproductive cycle by the set netters but from the sport fishing industry. No I am not a set netter nor do I fish commercially.
    What is the percentage amount of kings “killed” by set netters and how many die from catch and release?

    • Brian, first we must know how many Kings are killed by set nets. You tell me. Are there drop outs? Well, of course there are and they always die. But that number is never reported. Do some a kings go under a tarp and not get reported? Of course. But how many? When you consider there are around 500 set net permits fishing miles and miles of net, there could be a LOT of Kings killed. At be least with catch and release we know that most survive. In the other hand not reported by the set net crowd are all dead.

  15. Once the most magnificent salmon run in North America, the Kenai king run looks to be on its last legs.
    ADF&G, the sport fishing guide industry, the east side setnetters, the borough, the property owners along the river – all have done what they can. Nothing is working.
    The kings are not returning to Cook Inlet streams and many other North American rivers. They are being decimated in the ocean.
    Hats off to Greg Brush and the many other users who are trying to give these fish a chance. Sadly, closing down the river for 5 or 10 years, pointing a finger at the other guy or hoping for a miracle isn’t going to work.
    The problem is in the big ocean. Maybe too many hatchery pinks? Maybe too many 5 mile drift nets? Maybe too many deep water predators? Who knows?
    Whatever the reason, the decimation of the Kenai king run wasn’t caused by politicians or fishery board members, and a strong run probably won’t return in our lifetimes.

    A lawsuit? Seems like two children spitting food at each other.

  16. Huh, funny Alaskans First that Kenai King population remained healthy for years and years. Only when in river pressure began to increase and management changed from biological to political did the King population began to decline. You are so bias I can see that it’s a waste of time to have real conversation. Eventually, probably sooner rather than later, you’ll get your wish and Commercial fishing will effectively end in Cook Inlet but don’t look for resource to rebound because misguided people like you will continue to pressure biologist to politically mismanage the Kenai. What a shame!

    • Yep you are right. The commercial
      Gill netters have never wanted to share the resources even though our constitution required that the salmon are to managed for the maximum benefit of all Alaskans. Come on Steve! Have the courage to say what you all really want. And that is to kill
      all the Kings so that there will be no further need to manage them at the expense of the Sockeye. Be the first Comm guy to come clean and for once tell the truth!

  17. 20 years ago you didnt have floods of cars headed to dipnet on the penninsula, more guides in the river , more people in the river than ever . Why have the cook inlet permits stayed consistent with the fishery, but the guides and the dipnetters haven,t . Just saying you dont need an observer out of college to figure that out.There is offshore In terception , it is our fleet although they have gotten better especially trident that stays in constant contact with there vessels and has them move if they are catching salmon,trident is the leader in that,as well as new escapement mechanisms in there nets(Russia operates with black and gray boats)gray is somewhat legal crab boat registered for 200,000 lbs catches 400,00,but black boats different animal do what ever they want(Chinese interception) we must protect the donut hole its between us and Russia. I think the northwest explorer did the last leg of the year for the year of the salmon,which is a scientific salmon study done by us,can,rus,kor,jap I think that is it ,they were doing the research on a scurvdog Russian boat until Ukraine. Then the explorer boat had to do last leg of survey they caught more salmon than the Russian boat ,why because the trident boat is very efficient at staying away from salmon bycatch, so when the survey time came they targeted and caught . Allot of mainlanders dont understand the complexity of the north pacific.Dont worry commercial fishermen adapt , we have been cruising the seas and chasing fish fo a long time. Stay out of creeks and rivers 1/4 share horns. TRUMP IS BEST PRESIDENT EVA
    .

  18. I’ll try again. I lived and fished in Kodiak close to 30 years. What I saw with my own eyes, through the nineties is, what I believe is the reason for the king salmon numbers decline in EVERY river system where they run ie; Kenai, Yukon, Nushigak, Kuskokwim, all the rivers that drain into the North Pacific that support kings.
    The reason for the decline is not the end users, the reason is high sea interception by mid-water trawlers…by catch.
    I worked in this industry for over a decade and was astounded at the volume of two to three year old kings being killed during the pollock drag season, particularly the sac-roe pollock season Every offload at the docks had 7,000 lbs on average of mainly king by catch. Some chum, but mosty kings.
    When kings are about the size of pollock, they will swim with the enormous schools of pollock, especially when pollock are in spawn. Trawling (mid-water)scoops up the pollock and all the other fish swimming with them.
    To give you an idea of the numbers we’re talking about; say 7,000 lbs of kings have been sorted out of the 150 ton delivery of pollock at the dock. If those kings averaged say, 6 lbs, then we’re talking about 1,160 kings off each vessel, each delivery, every time they deliver, every third day about.
    I observed this for years in Kodiak.
    By law, the trawlers have observers aboard counting salmon in the nets. When they haul the net up the stern ramp mid ship (called the sausage) and unzip it to dump the pollock into the RSW hold, the observers try to spot salmon in that 300,000 (pollock) to 7,000(salmon) ratio. They don’t count most of them.
    It is my belief that the trawlers are totally responsible for the low numbers of kings in ALL our rivers here in Alaska (Canada too.)

    • Prrfect 10 – you nailed it! Trawler bycatch & increasing inriver sportfishing pressure are most likely to blame. Unfortunately, the Alaska trawl fleet has thoroughly captured the National Marine Fishery Service with non stop lobbying and the lodges and commercial sportfishing interests have thoroughly captured local Alaska politicians with campaign contributions and fundraisers and so, I am afraid, the future does not look rosy for King salmon runs.

  19. Nope, no bias there. Have the courage to admit you can’t look at the problem objectively. If you bother to look at facts like correlation between rise of in river pressure and decline of king population you’ll see the inconvenient truth.

  20. Alaskans first lives in a fantasy. In his/ her world kings that are caught and released two or three times or improperly handled never die in the river. Wake Up, the increased pressure in river and pressure on biologist to Politically Manage river because of misinformed individual like this definitely has negatively impacted king population. Setnetters and drifters have had fishing time reduced drastically over last decade, if they are the problem how come kings keep declining?

  21. Prrfect 10 – you nailed it! Trawler bycatch & increasing inriver sportfishing pressure are most likely to blame. Unfortunately, the Alaska trawl fleet has thoroughly captured the National Marine Fishery Service with non stop lobbying and the lodges and commercial sportfishing interests have thoroughly captured local Alaska politicians with campaign contributions and fundraisers and so, I am afraid, the future does not look rosy for King salmon runs.

  22. This article sucks, Vincent and his board are out of compliance with the Magnusson Act .
    The setnetters have already won in the Supreme Court .so there’s that

    Soon Vinny and his political operatives will go Bye bye ,no more control and political shenanigans .

    Just MSY management and 10 points of National interest

    Ohh And the Star us going to pay us big $$ for damages

    👍💯

  23. Greg,I truly appreciate your concern about the declining chinook returns in the kenai and other river systems. But what about the first run kings in the kenai. No commercial harvest by the east side setnet fishery or the drift fleet since 1975 and still, year after year we fail to achieve escapement goals. How say you on that?

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