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KENAI - After passing a Federal Subsistence Board vote by a margin of six to zero, a fish wheel fishery - typically more common on the Yukon and Copper Rivers - will soon be making an appearance on the Kasilof River to serve the subsistence needs of rural residents of Ninilchik.
"It's a temporary three-year fishery," said Doug Palmer, 2008 acting in-season manager at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's field office in Soldotna.
Ninilchik residents are eligible to harvest fish under federal subsistence regulations in federal public waters on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers, and initially, fish wheel fisheries were proposed in both bodies of water. However, the initial proposal underwent significant modifications and the Federal Subsistence Board ultimately approved a fish wheel only in the Kasilof River and for a limited period of time initially.
"It's kind of an experimental thing right now," Palmer said, but added if no resource conflicts or habitat damage occur during this pilot period, "the fishery could be permitted to continue if (so) deemed by the Federal Subsistence Board."
Since a fish wheel fishery will be new to the current federal subsistence program, a written operation plan must be submitted - and approved by the in-season fishery manager, in consultation with the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge manager - before any fishing can begin in the Kasilof.
"An operation plan must be submitted by an organization regarding who is responsible for the construction, installation, operation, use and removal of fish from the wheel. Everyone needs to have access to the fish harvested, so they have to work out the details of how the fish will be distributed (among households and residents of Ninilchik), too," Palmer said.
Greg Encelewski, president of the Ninilchik Traditional Council, said the tribe is working on an operational plan, but he wasn't certain if all the necessary prerequisites would be met, and a fish wheel built and installed, in time to be utilized for the 2008 fishing season.
"We like to have one in, but we're still thinking about it and working out all the details of how it will be done," he said.
Encelewski said, like the program itself, the first fish wheel constructed may be an experimental one to evaluate the success of their design.
"The first one will be small to try it out and see if it even works," he said.
Encelewski said there are a lot of logistical factors to consider in regard to putting a fish wheel in the Kasilof River, particularly in the federal water section, which is quite far upriver, encompassing roughly three river miles: from the silver salmon rapids closest to Hongkong Bend upstream to the outlet of Tustumena Lake.
"We've been scouting around and checking water depths," he said.
Encelewski said a specific location has not yet been determined, but so far an area slightly downstream from the boat launch at the end of Tustumena Lake Road is looking the most promising.
According to federal regulations, chinook, sockeye, coho and pink salmon can be harvested beginning June 16, should a fish wheel fishery plan be submitted and approved, and a wheel constructed and installed.
"Salmon taken in the fish wheel fishery will be included as part of the household and annual harvest limits," Palmer said.
On the Kasilof River, for chinook, coho and pink salmon the household/each addition household member limits are 10/2 for each species, while the annual total harvest limit is 500 for each. For sockeyes, the household/each addition household member limits are 25/5, while the annual total harvest limit is 4,000.
All fish harvested in the fish wheel fishery must be reported to the in-season manager within 72 hours of leaving the fishing location.
"All rainbow trout and steelhead caught in the fish wheel fishery must be released," Palmer said.
More information on the Kasilof River fish wheel fishery, and subsistence fishing regulations can be found online at http://alaska.fws.gov/asm/home.html.