A new organization backed by a powerful Kenai River sportfishing advocate is trying to ban commercial setnet fishing from all urban areas in Alaska, including Cook Inlet.
The group, Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, counts Bob Penney, a politically-connected Anchorage real estate developer who has long been vocal about sportfishing issues, as a director.
The group says prized Kenai River king salmon are threatened by overfishing and bycatch and blames commercial set-nets for worsening the problem.
"There is no debating that king salmon stocks in Cook Inlet are at historic lows," the group wrote in a statement to reporters. "Setnets are indiscriminate killing machines and it is time they are banned in urban areas in Alaska."
The ballot initiative is the latest salvo in a decades-old fish war between commercial fishermen and sportfishermen. Each side wants an increasingly scarce and enormously lucrative resource: king salmon.
The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance filed paperwork Wednesday to begin the ballot initiative process.
The next step is for the state Department of Law to review the legality of what's being proposed. That will happen in the next 60 days.
If the Department of Law signs off, backers can begin gathering the more than 30,000 signatures needed to put it up for a statewide vote.
The group said it wants to put the initiative on an August 2016 primary ballot.
The initiative moves to ban commercial setnetting in "urban" areas: Anchorage, the Kenai River, Cook Inlet, Valdez, Fairbanks, the Mat-Su Valley, Juneau and Ketchikan.
Joe Connors, a Sterling lodge owner acting as a spokesman for the group, said there's currently no setnetting in any of the urban areas targeted other than Cook Inlet but the idea would be to keep the practice from moving in.
The rest of the state, including setnetters in Kodiak and Bristol Bay, along with subsistence fisheries, wouldn't be included.
"There isn't pressure on those resources like there are in urban areas," Connors said.
Dipnetters, drift boats and anglers wouldn't be targeted by the ballot initiative.
The main organization representing area setnetters, the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association, said it was reviewing the ballot initiative Wednesday and wasn't ready to offer a public response.
But individual Cook Inlet setnetters said they catch only a fraction of the troubled Kenai River kings and putting them out of business would destroy not only an industry but a lifestyle and culture.
The Cook Inlet setnet fishery dates back to the 1970s, when the state handed out permits to fish for sockeye salmon at sites from Kachemak Bay to north of Anchorage. Setnetters anchor large nets to the shore and run their operations from the beach.
Today, there are about 750 permit holders representing about 400 fishing families in Cook Inlet, according to the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association. The number of permits is capped, but they can be sold or traded.
The value of a permit plus a lease to fish in prime locations concentrated on the east shore of the inlet -- the "urban" side -- can be worth hundreds of thousands of dollars, said Alaska Department of Fish and Game commercial fisheries biologist Pat Shields.
Setnetters end up catching about 13 percent of all kings, said Shields.
That's 13 percent fewer kings for sportfishermen, guides and lodge owners, who advertise the chance to catch big kings as a main attraction of a trip to the Kenai Peninsula.
Conditions for catching kings this last summer were "catastrophic," said Connors, whose lodge website features clients with king salmon trophy shots.
If setnets aren't banned, "I think we could see the demise of this species in Cook Inlet," he said.
Third-generation Kenai setnetter Travis Every said the decline of the kings is probably caused by a mix of population pressures, pollution and habitat issues.
"What makes them think that now we are going to be the demise of the king?" he said. "There's more and more pressure being put on this resource. Why they want to continually come after the oldest and most traditional fishery that there is in Cook Inlet is kind of beyond me."
Some families make their entire living on the fishery, said Every, whose children are the fourth generation of the family to work a setnet site on Cook Inlet.
"It's not just a job. It's a way of life, and kind of an identity," he said. "It's who we are, for me personally and my family."
Reach Michelle Theriault Boots at firstname.lastname@example.org or 257-4344.