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Ninilchik Tribe Fishing Kenai Until Aug. 15

Photo by Daysha Eaton/KBBI

For years, the Ninilchik tribe has been seeking — and last week was granted — approval to use a more effective method of catching its subsistence allocation of Kenai River sockeye salmon. The change in gear type has raised concerns about its take of king salmon, a fishery that has been in decline for several years. 

Rather than dip netting, the Ninilchik Traditional Council can now set a gill net.

From the Swiftwater launch site in Soldotna, tribal member Daniel Reynolds heads out on the Kenai with two other NTC employees. They’re setting out a net that’s anchored to a tree on land.

“We’re on the Kenai River. We’re going down to Moose Meadows range and put a 20-foot net out. We’ll see how it goes,” said Reynolds.

Credit The NTC crew sets the tribe's gill net on the Kenai River in the Moose Meadows Range area on Saturday, July 30.

Reynolds sets the 5 and 1/4-inch mesh net, tossing a metal anchor followed by a 60-pound sand bag into the river then extends the net across a section of river, tying the opposite end of the rope to a tree branch on the bank. It’s not long before Reynolds walks the net and pulls out a large sockeye and tosses it into a container on the boat.

Followed by another, and another. The spectacle of a net on the Kenai attracts attention of guides and local fishermen, who pull up close to take photos. Some question whether the fishery is legal. Soon, a state of Alaska park ranger, Melissa Smith, pulls up in her boat and wades over to check things out.

“How you doing? You guys caught a few today, huh?,” said Smith.

She returns with a U.S. Fish and Wildlife law enforcement supervisor, who seems to find everything in order.

Approval came after a lawsuit filed in 2015. On July 27, the Federal Subsistence Board approved the tribe’s emergency special action request to operate a community subsistence gill net fishery on the Kenai. NTC is fishing on behalf of the entire community under a federal law passed in 1980 that allows rural residents to participate in subsistence activities on federal lands and waters.

Sockeye salmon caught by the NTC crew on the Kenai River near the Moose Range Meadows on Saturday, July 30.

“ANILCA was the National Interest Lands Conservation Act and it did a lot of things, but one of the things it did was establish a federal subsistence system which gives priority use to rural residents. So it’s not a Native or a non-Native issue, it is a rural community issue,” said Ivan Encelewski, executive director of NTC.

“We’re just absolutely elated. So many of us have fought for so long. Like I said, this has been going on for over a decade,” said Encelewski.

There is no shortage of sockeye salmon in the Kenai River. Last year’s run of sockeye was 3.6 million, and the upper end of the escapement goal, 1.4 million was met. But the early king salmon fishery was closed last year due to low returns, and restrictions continued this year. The early run of Kenai River kings this year was nearly 10,000, fish exceeding the escapement goal. The later run, which the tribe is fishing, is doing better as well, with about 16,500 kings returned as of July 31 — about the halfway point for the upper end of the escapement goal.

Ninilchik Traditional Council is headquartered in Ninilchik where the tribe provides services and outreach for both tribal members and the public residing in tribal boundaries. NTC's mission is to promote the sovereignty, wellbeing, and cultural identity of the Ninilchik tribe’s people for generations to come.

In 2015, in the Kenai River, sport fishermen took nearly 4,000 late run king salmon. Commercial fishermen took approximately 7,000 and the dip net personal use, 66 fish.

The tribe is allotted 2,000 sockeye and a thousand kings, and voluntarily agreed to restrict their take of late run king salmon this season to 50. As of July 31, they caught 33 sockeye and no kings.

In Ninilchik, the fishermen deliver all 18 of the day’s catch to community members who signed up to receive them. Jeff and Sandy Olson have lived in Ninilchik for 15 years. The Olsons are not tribal members, but they applied for a permit to have the tribe fish for them.

“My husband had a stroke and I am legally blind, so I don’t get around so much, so it’s nice to have the fish,” said Sandy Olson.

A single-person household can receive 25 sockeye, with five more fish for each additional household member.

Sport, commercial and recreational fishermen are united in their opposition to the tribe set netting for subsistence. Other rural communities allowed to subsistence fish in the Kenai, like Cooper Landing and Hope, oppose subsistence gill netting too.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife spokesperson Andrea Madeiros says the agency remains concerned about the impact that Ninilchik’s net could have on king salmon.

“We do though have concerns about that gear type in that area. It’s a spawning ground for early run chinook. The gill net that they’re using, gill nets are non-discriminate, so we feel that there is a risk to not only the chinook, but other species that may be in that area,” said Madeiros.

Darrel Williams, Resource and Environment Department director for the tribe, says the ruling set strict rules, especially for kings.

“There are limits on the fish that we can catch. If we catch chinook we take age, sex and genetic samples and send them out for study to help provide information about the fishery. We have not caught a chinook yet,” said Williams.

The special action allows the tribe to operate the subsistence gill-net fishery in the federal waters of the Moose Range Meadows for the next two weeks, until Aug. 15. Any future subsistence gill-net fishing will have to be approved. 

Daysha Eaton holds a B.A. from Evergreen State College, and a M.A. from the University of Southern California. Daysha got her start in radio at Seattle public radio stations, KPLU and KUOW. Before coming to KBBI, she was the News Director at KYUK in Bethel. She has also worked as the Southcentral Reporter for KSKA in Anchorage.