• Alaska Division of Elections to reach decision by Jan. 6
By Hannah Heimbuch
Shortly after the new year, Alaska’s Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and the State Division of Elections will decide whether an initiative to ban set nets off Alaska’s urban shores will go before the state’s voters.
The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance announced their proposal one month ago, citing the declining Kenai River king run as proof that stronger conservation methods are needed in the salmon fisheries. From the AFCA perspective, that means reducing the number of king salmon intercepted by shore-bound commercial fisheries targeting sockeye salmon.
“The 210-foot-long set nets are indiscriminate killers that catch everything swimming by,” said AFCA president Joe Connors. “For AFCA, what matters is that, within urban areas, commercial set net fishing is an undeniably antiquated and predatory method of harvesting fish that wastes Alaska’s fisheries resources by indiscriminately killing or injuring large numbers of non-target species.”
Connors, who spent six years as a Cook Inlet set netter, is a retired University of Alaska Anchorage professor and owns a lodge and fishing charter service on the Kenai River.
Cook Inlet set net fisheries have faced significant restrictions in recent years as management biologists juggle both resource allocation and protection of minimum king salmon escapement. This most recent addition to that debate has drawn the attention of all user groups, as well as heated commentary from across the state.
An early November release from the Alaska Salmon Alliance criticized many points within the newly proposed initiative, deeming it a biased and inaccurate assessment of both the set net fishery and responsible conservation methods.
An ASA open forum held in Homer in November aimed to showcase the organization’s mission for collaborative management of fish resources, on this and many other issues. The forum was one of four ASA held this fall — in Palmer, Anchorage, Kenai and Homer — striving to gather a variety of fish user groups in one room for discussion.
The proposed ban was a hot topic among those attending in Homer, said ASA President Paul Dale of Snug Harbor Seafoods, adding that the crowd was mostly from the commercial fleet.
“There’s certainly a lot of sport fishers in Homer,” Dale said. “I would have liked them to attend. Part of what ASA would like to do is foster a dialogue between, you might say, competing or diverse user groups.”
ASA was established in 2011. The open forums are an excellent representation of what his organization is working toward, Dale said.
“I think what differentiates us from some groups is that we’re committed to working out problems within the framework of the existing mix of user groups,” Dale said. “There’s no question that we recognize there will be and should be an ongoing vibrant sport, personal-use, commercial fish and subsistence user mix in Cook Inlet. We think we can solve problems between us.”
Those who support the AFCA initiative, however, are calling for a more restrictive approach when it comes to harvesting salmon destined for the urban waterways populated by sport fishers.
“Set nets are fine for rural subsistence fishing, because there is no pressure on the resource,” Connors said. “However, in urban areas, the time has come to do what eight other states have already done – it is time for set nets to go.”
Those states include Texas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New York and California. Washington and Oregon have placed significant restrictions on their set net fisheries.
“Under this initiative, all urban areas of Alaska — those today and those in the future — will be protected from the waste that is caused by commercial set nets,” Connors said.
In a letter to Kenai Peninsula assembly members last week, however, the ASA said the measure aims to unjustly truncate a set net livelihood thousands of Alaskans depend on.
“The ballot initiative to remove a meaningful and traditional resident-based sector of the Kenai Peninsula economy as part of an overall plan to reallocate to another sector based on questionable science, is a slap in the face to a long established Alaska tradition,” wrote ASA Executive Director Arni Thomson.
Homer resident and longtime commercial and sport fisherman Frank Mullen attended the November ASA meeting at Homer’s Elk’s Lodge, and said the organization presented a good opportunity for healthy discussion on a contentious issue.
The discussion pointed to a wide variety of causes and remedies for Cook Inlet salmon population dips, Mullen said. What he heard was a general consensus that the proposed ban was shortsighted in its approach to supporting the Kenai River kings.
“Management should look at all issues combined, including many of the major ones that exist with Kenai River habitat,” he said, noting that significant impacts on in-river spawning grounds should be a major concern for conservation.
“(There was) a lot of talk about the incredible pressure the river has received in the main stem of the river over the last 30 or 40 years,” Mullen said. “There have been as many as 600 guide boats in the summer.”
The ASA is currently circulating a “Protect Our Kings” petition that focuses on conservation of in-river habitat.
Despite the widely differing views on how to best protect Kenai kings, Mullen said there are undeniably some hard decisions facing management in the near future. He hopes those hard choices can be made in a way that allows users of the resource to collaborate, rather than pitting one against another.
“It ought to be approached in terms of science and fish husbandry in a way that reflects that,” Mullen said. “And I’m afraid that it’s not.”
While debate over this initiative, and the general future of Kenai River kings, are both significant pending issues for the Kenai Peninsula, these decisions have implications that reach across the state, Dale said.
“More fundamentally, I believe commercial fish people across the state understand that the way we share resources, and specifically between sport and commercial users, is not just a Cook Inlet phenomenon,” Dale said. “It’s happening and becoming part and parcel for decision-making in Southeast Alaska, and parts of Prince William Sound. So it’s no longer a Cook Inlet-only circumstance.”
Mullen agrees with the broad implications of this issue, calling the Kenai River a national treasure that should be protected as such.
“If you let things go just in an unchecked, timidly managed scenario, you’re going to end up with a dead river,” Mullen said. “The people at this meeting are certainly not interested in seeing that happen.”
Mullen said he can see more than one valid argument and many vested interests in this situation, but ultimately is rooting for only one side.
“There are certainly some deeply entrenched positions on either side of the story here, I just hope that in the end the fish will win,” he said. “Right now, the course we’re on and the track that’s been set over the last 30 years, I don’t see how the fish can win.”
If the ballot measure is deemed legal by the state, supporters will have one year to collect the required signatures to get it on the ballot. The next hurdle would be passing it through the 2015 Alaska Legislature, with a final stop on the statewide ballot in August of 2016.
Should that happen, Mullen said, the “fish wars” Alaska has seen in recent years will most certainly be taken up a notch.
“It’s going to be ugly,” he said, “because when one group tries to take the livelihood away from another group, they’re going to work hard to defend themselves.”
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