VIDEO: Lawmakers and advocates tout Alaskan sportfishing before Kenai River Classic

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Kenai River Sportfishing Association board president Kristin Mellinger (left); Kasey Loomis, owner and guide at Eric Loomis Fishing; Alaska state Rep. Charisse Millett; and Kari Bustamante, sports director at NBC affiliate KTUU, are shown fishing at the Kenai River Classic

Kenai River Classic chair Kristin Mellinger (left); Kasey Loomis, owner and guide at Eric Loomis Fishing; Alaska state Rep. Charisse Millett; and Kari Bustamante, sports director at NBC affiliate KTUU, are shown fishing at the Kenai River Classic

SOLDOTNA, Alaska — Legislators and sportfishing advocates gathered last week in advance of the 25th Kenai River Classic, an annual event designed to raise money for habitat restoration, fisheries education, research and management.

The dinner was held Aug. 23 at the home of longtime sportfishing advocates Bob and Jeannie Penney, following a U.S. Senate field hearing to discuss saltwater fish stock management led by Sen. Dan Sullivan, R-Alaska.

U.S. Sen. Barbara Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaking at a dinner

U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, speaking at a dinner prior to the event, also fished in the Classic.

“What we have seen over these last two and a half decades in terms of gatherings is people coming together to care for a resource,” U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, told a group of about 175 people at the home overlooking the Kenai River. “What you have established working with Sen. Ted Stevens is an accomplishment” that can’t be underestimated. 

Here is a video of Murkowski fishing:

The former senator, the longest-serving Republican senator, who held office in Alaska from 1968 until 2009, was the main topic for speakers at the event.

The Magnuson-Stevens Fishing and Conservation Act, the act that governs saltwater fishing in federal waters, was named in part for the senator, who died in a fishing plane crash in 2010.

Among other things the MSA established a 200-mile protective zone to keep foreign fleets from fishing America’s waters and to ensure biological and economic sustainability at the nation’s fisheries.

Other lawmakers who spoke included Sullivan, State Senate President Pete Kelley, state Rep. Scott Kawasaki and state Sen. Kevin Meyer. Congressional speakers included Sullivan, State Senate President Pete Kelley, state Rep. Scott Kawasaki and state Sen. Kevin Meyer.

Also speaking was Catherine Stevens, wife of the former senator; the Penneys, Gen. Mark Hamilton, president emeritus of the University of Alaska and chairman of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association; former Gov. Tony Knowles; KRSA executive director Ricky Gease; and Ben Speciale, president of the Yamaha Marine Group.

Yamaha Marine has been the main sponsor of the Kenai River Classic for all 25 years of its existence. This year’s event was held Aug. 23-25 and has raised more than $14 million during the past 25 years.

“This river has the most public access points of any river in Alaska, and among the most in the United States,” Kristin Mellinger, owner of V3 Strategic Solutions LLC and vice president of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association board, told Trade Only Today from a boat fishing the Kenai River Classic on Friday. “It’s the one of the few places Alaskans can fish for king salmon without being rich” because of the geographic challenges and expense of accessing other locations.

Mellinger is shown with a fish she caught during the Classic

Mellinger is shown with a fish she caught during the Classic.

The KRSA is helping to educate locals on salmon, Mellinger said, noting that fries burrow up to 50 feet into the banks. Bank erosion, which happens when fishermen walk on the bank, and when the river freezes, can threaten the fries as the river widens. 

“Those silver piers you see allow people to walk on the bank and still have access without threatening the fries,” Mellinger said. But there is still a lot of erosion from ice, so the KRSA has been laying trees to form a sort of underwater fence, allowing silt from the river to collect so the willows can reseed and offer natural protection to the fries.

“I’ve watched kids catch their first fish or net their first fish, and that’s why you can allow access and keep the bank protected,” Mellinger said. “People don’t want to hurt the habitat. They just don’t know. So that’s where we come in. That’s where dollars from the Kenai River Classic are going, and we appreciate it.”

“We have encouraged people from the lower 48 to come to this event because it is so special,” said Martin Peters, senior manager of marine communications and government relations at Yamaha Marine.

Getting children involved in the Kenai River Junior Classic is important to sustaining the industry and to conservation, advocates said. (There is also a Kenai River Women’s Classic.)

Emceeing at an auction designed to raise money for the KRSA on Aug. 24, Kari Bustamante, sports director at NBC affiliate KTUU, underscored the importance of getting children onto the water.

“When my father and I were first asked to co-emcee the Kenai Classic, we sat down and started thinking of our fishing stories on the Kenai together,” Bustamante said.

“While we came up with a lot of fishless, embarrassing stories I could tell about my dad, the truth is our memories on the Kenai are some of the best I had as a kid, and when I was offered the opportunity to become the host of the Fishing Report my dad is the first person I called. So I just want to say thank you, dad.”

“If it wasn’t for my dad I wouldn’t have this passion for sportfishing,” Bustamante said.

Read more about the Kenai River Classic and the events around it in the October issue of Trade Only Today.

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