ANCHORAGE - Ninilchik residents have traditional fishing rights on the upper Kenai River and surrounding waters, the Federal Subsistence Board has determined - a decision that could curtail opportunities for sport anglers in the state's most popular fisheries.
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By a 5-1 vote, the board on Friday approved the community's status for a subsistence preference despite the state's objections. The state Department of Fish and Game may consider a lawsuit, according to a department official.
The federal board will decide next spring how Ninilchik residents may fish in the area, and how many fish they can get.
The Ninilchik Traditional Council, which is pushing the change, said it wants to push its fishing efforts across the Kenai Peninsula and can do so without pushing other users off the river. The group has not specified how many of each fish species it seeks.
Some who testified on the matter questioned whether Ninilchik residents ever fished much around the Russian River or Cooper Landing. About 7 percent of the village residents say they go there yearly, according to the state.
Board members disagreed, however, partly because Ninilchik always has caught fish destined to spawn in the area even if its fishermen didn't always go that far inland.
"It's irrefutable that rural residents of the Kenai Peninsula have long-term customary and traditional use of Kenai River fish," said board chairman Mike Fleagle.
Before the board's vote, its attorney, Keith Goltz, told members that federal law favors food fishing for rural Alaskans when it can be done without hurting fish populations.
However many fish Ninilchik is allotted, those who use the river now fear it will come out of their creels.
"The fish have to come from somewhere," said Sarah Gilbertson, the Alaska Fish and Game subsistence liaison. "Whether that's curtailing sportfishing or commercial fishing remains to be seen."
The state agency will review its legal options, Gilbertson said, based on the opinion that federal managers ignored their own criteria in deciding Ninilchik has a historical link to the fish. Ninilchik, with a population of about 800, is 80 or more road miles from some of the inland waters in question.
The impact of the ruling on sport anglers who line the Russian River in crowded "combat" fishing for sockeye or float the Kenai in search of returning king salmon won't come into focus until the board considers Ninilchik's methods and harvest levels in May. But the Ninilchik Traditional Council proposes using in-river gillnets - a prospect certain to rile some fly-fishermen and conservationists.
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