The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance’s recent announcement of a statewide ballot initiative to ban setnets in Alaska’s urban areas, is the latest incarnation of Bob Penney’s long-running effort to put more than 720 families and small business owners who work in Cook Inlet’s Setnet fishery out of business.
Acting under the guise of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai King Conservation Alliance and now the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, Penney has spent decades trying to reallocate king salmon caught in East Side setnets to in-river guides and lodge owners.
Now he and the initiative sponsors, many of whom are Kenai River guides, are citing conservation of the Kenai River king salmon as the motivation for this fish grab. Many king salmon runs around the state are in a cycle of low abundance, but the Kenai River king salmon is not a stock of concern. In fact the Kenai has met its minimum escapement goal every year for the last 27 years, and exceeded the upper end of the escapement goal in 15 of those years.
This initiative is statewide in name only. Urban areas beyond Cook Inlet are included only as an attempt to clear constitutional hurdles put in place to prevent this kind of ballot box resource management that targets one specific user group. Make no mistake; this measure is aimed at one user group using one gear type in one location: Cook Inlet Setnetters.
Contrary to the assertions set forth by the sponsors of this initiative, setnets are highly selective harvest tools that effectively target sockeye and pink salmon. King salmon comprise less than one percent of the East Side setnet catch.
The Kenai River’s early king run occurs in June, and 100 percent of that run reaches the Kenai River before the setnet fishery begins. In July, when setnets are fishing, 87 percent of the late run kings reach the Kenai River. The Kenai River’s early king run has struggled to meet escapement goals and should be the primary focus of The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance’s efforts.
The Cook Inlet setnet fishery is important to Alaska’s economy and to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula. Eighty four percent of the setnet permits are owned by Alaska residents, and 80 percent of those Alaskans live on the Kenai Peninsula. Revenues from the fishery don’t just support fishing families and deckhands, they trickle down to a web of support businesses including fish processors, fish tenders, truck drivers, mechanics, welders, fuel sellers, boat builders, grocery and hardware stores. The loss of the fishery would do irreparable harm not only to the fishermen who would lose their livelihoods but to the Kenai Peninsula’s economy as well.
Since Limited Entry in 1974, our fishing methods have not changed, yet the amount of time we spend fishing has dwindled from a season that once spanned the summer from May through September to about six weeks between late June and early August. During that short season, our nets are in the water twice a week for 12 hours at a time with some additional fishing time managed carefully by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
As a former setnetter and Chairman of the Kenai River Special Management Advisory Board, Joe Connors should know that the setnet’s low 13% exploitation rate of Kenai River Kings is nearly insignificant when compared to the threat that these fish face due to the completely unbridled growth of the in-river sport fishery, and the unabated expansion of in-river commercial operations and powerboat use within their spawning grounds. One would think that the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance would focus instead on the fact that the state of Alaska has failed to conduct mandated habitat research and protection, and that our Kenai River faces possible federal intervention due to its pollution problem. Focusing on the oldest historical fishery with the longest and best record of sustainability is a poor strategy.
The truth is, Cook Inlet’s setnet fisheries have existed for more than a century because we have harvested responsively, sustaining Cook Inlet’s salmon runs year after year. We have full confidence in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to manage for sustainability of the resource, as they have done since statehood. We know that sustainable salmon runs will provide healthy fisheries for generations to come.
Lisa Gabriel is a member of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.
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