KENAI - A weak return of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River has many who look to the fish for their livelihood issuing a collective groan this year.
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The weak return is affecting everyone from dipnetters to commercial driftnetters, to packers and processors.
"It's been slow, really slow," said Mercedies Piercee of Soldotna who, along with her family, hadn't caught many fish for the time they invested holding a dipnet in the water under the Warren Ames Memorial Bridge.
"We fished (Wednesday) night for two to three hours and only got one that was so small we let it go. Today we've been at it for about a half an hour with nothing," she said Thursday.
Red Piercee, Mercedie's mother, said the slow dipnetting was upsetting.
"We've only got two fish toward our household limit of 65. Normally we could be about halfway there by now. This year is really depressing," she said.
Many commercial fishermen also are seeing near-empty nets. Rather than fishing more to compensate for low harvests, though, some fishermen are opting to fish less in an effort to cut their losses.
"I can't justify going out," said Cosmo Mercurio, a driftnetter from Cohoe. "It's a fuel issue. At close to $3 a gallon for diesel, you need a minimum catch to break even, so I'm fishing less."
Mercurio said this was the weakest catch since he began fishing in 1972.
Mercurio said that restrictions pulling commercial fisherman over to a roughly three-mile-wide corridor have hindered fishing. But he said he stands by biologists' decisions because the sustainability of the resource is more important than making money.
No sockeye for Mercurio also means no fish for the packers and processors that would normally buy from him and other commercial fishermen.
"The run levels projected are a concern," said Paul Dale, president of Snug Harbor Seafoods in Kenai.
"The obvious downside is we all have a minimum breakeven point," he said
Dale said he is looking to other areas beyond the Kenai River in order to keep the plant's production in line with its costs.
"I'm trying to fill the void with products from other areas, such as kings, sockeyes and chums from Bristol Bay, the Yukon River and the Kuskokwim region," he said.
Information from: Peninsula Clarion, http://www.peninsulaclarion.com
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