And there is most likely no more democratic fishing spot in America — a place where any Alaska resident, from an oil company executive to a carwash attendant, can fill a freezer with premium salmon for only the cost of gas and gear.
Most of the Kenai’s fish are caught by commercial boats and sold around the world. The rest go to sport fishermen, who catch them with a rod and reel, and, increasingly, a wildly diverse group of mostly urban dip-netters, who crowd the river’s mouth for three weeks in July, hoping to score a winter’s supply of wild salmon that most can’t afford to buy. In the roughly 20 years since the state started regulating dip-net fishing in the region, the number of permits it issues has doubled, to more than 30,000.
Now, when the dip-netters descend, the beach takes on the motley, slightly claustrophobic feel of a music festival. Whole families set up camp in the sand, hauling tents, chairs, dogs, children and nets by four-wheelers from the packed parking lot.
This year, a church group brought in a bouncy house and grilled hot dogs. A cart sold espresso. People on the beach spoke Hmong, Korean, Tagalog, Spanish and Thai. They played Christian rock, reggaeton and Pacific Island R&B.
July’s dip-net army lifts the economy in the town of Kenai, but it also clogs the highway and litters the beach with fish heads and guts that have to be raked to the water at night by special tractors. Hundreds of gulls cry overhead, diving to feast on entrails. On weekends, when crowding is at its worst, there are dust-ups over fishing territory, tangled gear, pilfered bags of ice and stolen coolers. Differences in culture, language and notions of personal space sometimes fuel the conflicts.
“It used to be 200 people; now it’s 5,000” on a given day, said Scott Turney, an Anchorage telecommunications engineer who has been fishing on the beach for more than 30 years. “There never used to be any conflicts, but the newcomers don’t have the same courtesy. As soon as you drag a fish out, one or two people will come take your place.”
Even with the crowds, he said, landing a big haul of fish is worth the hassle: “l still love it. I’ll never stop.”
To fish, most people stand elbow to elbow along the shoreline, wearing waders, chest-high in the cold river. Each holds a long steel pole with a five-foot-wide net basket on the end. When a fish hits the net, the fisher drags it onto the beach and bonks it on the head with a short bat. Some people also fish by boat to avoid the crowd, holding their nets overboard as they drift with the current.
Occasionally, a commercial boat putters by. There’s always a little tension.
Commercial fishermen catch salmon by stretching large nets in the inlet near the mouth of the river. When things are slow, dip-netters grumble that the larger boats take too many fish.
The commercial fishermen, on the other hand, must sometimes stop work for a few days at the direction of state biologists who monitor the number of fish in the river for conservation purposes. They don’t love watching the dip-netters filling their coolers.
“It’s always hard to not be catching fish,” said Hannah Heimbuch, who runs a 32-foot aluminum commercial boat, Salmon Slut, in the inlet. “I feel like our harvest is pretty responsible and pretty moderate.”
A single dip-netter is allowed to take home 25 sockeye, or red, salmon, and an additional 10 for each family member per season — limits enforced by state officers who patrol the beach.
The average dip-net fisher in the Cook Inlet — the 180-mile finger of ocean that runs along the Kenai Peninsula from Anchorage to the Gulf of Alaska — brings home 60 to 70 pounds of salmon each summer, said Ricky Gease, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. Even in Alaska, this is a bargain: Although wild salmon can sell for more than $25 a pound in the lower 48, here it will still cost $10 or more at the grocery.
An estimated 90,000 people, fishers and their families, share about 400,000 sockeye annually, Mr. Gease said, which breaks down to 2.4 million meals, the majority of fish coming from the Kenai. Food-bank workers in Anchorage say salmon has also become a supplemental source of protein for the city’s hungry.
“Outside the revenues generated from oil,” Mr. Gease said, “this is the largest single shared natural resource in Alaska for residents.”
Over the years, the town has become better at managing the parking, the trash and the fish waste. The number of dip-netting permits has dropped a bit the past few years, leading to speculation that the fishery has reached its saturation point.
On July 29, on the last weekend of the season, fishers lined up in the sun under a noisy tangle of gulls. Sina Tulimasealii, wearing a protective skirt made from a garbage bag, cleaned salmon on top of a plastic container, a coral-colored heap of roe at her feet.
She planned to bake her fish with mayonnaise, lemon pepper and green onion, she said. Her Anchorage church, Manai Fou Assembly of God, holds services in Samoan. About 30 church members were catching fish that day to share with the congregation, she said.
They used the Samoan word “mafutaga” — fellowship — to describe what it feels like to be on the beach with so many people.
“Some of our elders cannot fish, so we fish for them,” Ms. Tulimasealii said. “It’s not all about fishing, though. It’s about having fun.”
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