Guides honored for catch-and-release program
SOLDOTNA — Like many efforts involving Cook Inlet salmon, Fish for the Future started with frustration. Unlike many of those, it didn’t end there.
The brainchild of two Soldotna-area residents, Fish for the Future is both amorphous and very clear. The goal hasn’t changed in its three years of operation: make sure more Kenai River king salmon make it onto the spawning beds, primarily through encouraging sport fishermen to release the king salmon they catch.
What it exactly is isn’t as defined.
Co-founders Greg Brush and Mark Wackler essentially run a contest that awards prizes for the best photos and videos of people releasing the Kenai and Kasilof river king salmon they caught. Virtually everything happens on Facebook, and both carefully keep their names off the page.
Brush said that was a conscious choice because of the negativity long associated with the salmon fisheries on the Kenai River. He and Wackler both work as guides, but they wanted Fish for the Future to stand on its own and not carry the connotation of being a “guide” project.
“We’re just two concerned residents,” he said.
After three seasons of increasing growth, though, with photos submitted almost every day during the three-month fishery, their work is getting some attention. The Kachemak Heritage Land Trust, a regional land conservation trust based in Homer, awarded Fish for the Future its annual “Kingmaker” award, intended to recognize individual or group contributions to conserving salmon, Executive Director Marie McCarty and Communications and Development Director Denise Jantz noted in a letter accompanying the award.
“By creating the simple, non-allocative, education-based Fish for the Future program, you have ensured that more king salmon will make it to their spawning grounds upstream and will be in our rivers far into the future,” the letter states. “As the Fish for the Future website states, this important catch and release program allows anglers opportunity while minimizing impact.”
When Brush and Wackler conceived the idea three years ago, it was based on frustration that while Kenai king runs kept coming back weaker, smaller and later, people continued to proudly post pictures of huge fish they caught.
Both had converted their guide businesses to catch-and-release only for kings years before, explaining to each prospective client that Kenai kings are special but in trouble and they’d release each one.
Both expected that the conversion would cost them business, but they say it hasn’t set them back; some clients would choose not to come if they couldn’t keep fish, while others understand.
They modeled Fish for the Future after other catch-and-release programs, offering prizes for photographs of released fish — not necessarily the biggest fish, just the best photo. The first year, they got a few donated prizes from various companies, including plane tickets and fishing gear.
By the second year, they had people coming to them, including fishing gear giant Rappala, to donate giveaway items.
“We had thousands of dollars worth of donations, and we were like, ‘How do we get these in the hands of people?’” he said.
Kenai king salmon runs have been declining in recent years, most markedly beginning in 2008. The shortages, reaching a trough in 2012 when an extremely weak run forced commercial and sport fishing closures, have intensified longstanding tensions between user groups in the region.
There are two words Brush says no one will find in any of the Fish for the Future posts: “commercial” and “allocation.” They make a point to stay positive and encouraging of catch-and-release rather than combative about those who don’t release their fish.
Catch-and-release has helped other sport fisheries around the world come back from population declines. Michigan fisheries managers began using catch-and-release as a conservation mechanism for rainbow trout in the 1950s, and the United Kingdom has required catch-and-release for threatened Atlantic salmon stocks for years.
In the Bristol Bay area, anglers are required to release all the rainbow trout they catch. Brush cited the example of the increasing use of catch-and-release in marlin sportfishing — with millions of dollars hinged upon catching the specific fish, catch-and-release has helped preserve the populations and thus the economies that depend on them.
“It takes a culture change to go from (holding up a fish) as your advertisement to where you’re down in the water, release is your advertisement,” Wackler said. “It might be a different group of clientele or whatever, but it works. I think it’s been proven that works all over the world.”
Catch-and-release remains controversial among some fishermen because of the potential mortality to the fish, but Brush said the way he sees it, there’s a better chance of survival for a released fish than a retained one. The evidence they’ve seen, both in data and anecdotally, indicates that a major percentage of the released fish survive, he said.
“Part of Fish for the Future is educational in nature — if you’re worried about seven out of a hundred dying, I understand that,” he said. “It’s not perfect. Seven out of a hundred is a shame. But it’s seven out of a hundred. It’s not fifty out of a hundred or a hundred out of a hundred.”
Right now, Fish for the Future exists as a Facebook page and nothing more — Wackler and Brush don’t even accept the donated prizes, they just connect the prizewinner with the donor. In the future, they’re considering new avenues to keep it going, they said.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].