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Episode 17: Kenai Fish Wars

By KTVA Alaska 5:30 PM August 23, 2015

Our entire program is devoted to the battle between the Kenai River sport fishing industry and the Cook Inlet setnetters — a fascinating story that involves politics, class warfare, economics, science and, most important of all, passion.

There’s something primal about the emotions fishing evokes in Alaskans everywhere, but you really see it on the Kenai Peninsula — the recreational sport fishing grounds for Southcentral Alaska. It’s where the world record was set for the largest king salmon ever caught, a 97-pound, 4-ounce fish, caught by rod-and-reel. The record still stands.

I started covering the Kenai River fish wars back in 2012, when the king run crashed, not just on the Kenai, but on the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers as well.

I was struck by the huge crowd that turned out for a Cook Inlet setnetters’ meeting.

Although setnetters target red salmon, they lost fishing time that season — and in subsequent years — because the king salmon run at the same time as the reds. To preserve the kings, fishery managers shut down fishing until king numbers taper off.

There was no room inside the meeting hall, and groups of fisher families stood outside. The Blossoms from Ninilchik were one the largest, numbering about a dozen.

The patriarch of the family, Doug Blossom, Sr., was very ill. He died not long afterwards, but photojournalist Carolyn Hall and I were able to spend some time with his son’s family this summer during a commercial opener. In this week’s program, you’ll see a family who has worked a beautiful stretch of beach north of Ninilchik for several generations.

Also in 2012, I visited with Bob Penney at his home on the Kenai River in Soldotna — a beautiful log house with huge king salmon trophies and fishing photographs on the wall, a veritable who’s who in Alaska.

Penney was upset about the season’s huge hit to the sports fishery, which also lost opportunity to fish for kings. He also worried about the devastation to the Kenai Peninsula’s economy and blamed setnetters for the failed run.

Penney is one of the main funders of the Alaska Conservation Fisheries Alliance, a group set up to campaign for an initiative to ban commercial setnetting in Cook Inlet. Alaska Public Office Commission records show he donated $97,000 to the group. The money was mostly used to hire someone to collect signatures.

Penney wouldn’t grant us an interview this season. He says he doesn’t want to talk with us until after the Alaska Supreme Court rules on the initiative.

Instead, he referred us to Joe Connors, president of the Alliance.

Connors owns the Big Sky Charter and Fish Camp outside of Sterling. Photojournalist Jacob Curtis and I spent some time there, to show you how sport fishing dollars ripple into the economy and multiply.

The Kenai Fish Wars are complicated. This program does not even begin to address this, but it gives a good overview of the issues. For more details on the history of this long running battle between the commercial and sports fishing industries, watch our web extra with Andrew Jensen, editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce.


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