Laine Welch: Setnet ban backers push for vote

FisheriesJanuary 25, 2014 

A measure aimed at banning salmon setnetting is being held afloat by backers. The ban includes the Anchorage area, much of the Kenai Peninsula, Valdez and Juneau. It would completely eliminate Cook Inlet setnetters and affect roughly 500 fishing families in all.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell decided two weeks ago to not allow the question to go before Alaska voters as a ballot initiative in 2016. The new Kenai-based Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance followed up with an appeal filed in Alaska Superior Court.

"In a measure based on conservation and Alaska law, our organization will challenge the decision to disallow our proposed statewide commercial set net ban in the urban, non-subsistence regions of Alaska from going to the state voters," AFCA Director Clark Penney said at a press conference.

Alliance legal counsel Matt Singer called the legal opinion "incorrect."

"The decision by the lieutenant governor and the opinion by the attorney general upon which it was based is wrong. They are wrong on the law," Singer said. "The decision, should it stand, will set a dangerous precedent for Alaska."

The setnet ban is being driven primarily by the dwindling number of king salmon returning to Cook Inlet, which has curtailed salmon fishing across the board for several years. Removing setnetters would likely shift more fish to sport anglers and the salmon fleet targeting sockeyes.

Treadwell ruled that it amounts to fish allocation decisions, which cannot be made through a voter initiative. The Alliance insists, however, that it is a conservation measure. Treadwell urged all users to find solutions, and to let decisions be made by the state Board of Fish. But Matt Singer countered that AFCA has no confidence in the board.

"The board has not conserved kings, and the voters have a right to express their will," he asserted.

Cook Inlet sport fishermen would not oppose restrictions in the name of king conservation, said AFCA President Joe Connors.

"Please keep in mind concerning Kenai River guides that they are at the lowest number in 20 years," Connors said. "Last year there were 284 from a high of 420 guides 15 years ago."

Alliance founder and sport fish icon Bob Penney said he recognizes the importance of commercial fishing in Alaska but alleged that setnets have the "highest bycatch" of any fishing in state waters. Penney called setnets "inappropriate gear" when king salmon numbers were steadily dwindling.

"You don't wait till the kings are gone to say we should have done something," Penney said. "Now is the time to protect the fish. Conservation of the fish comes first."

The setnet ban is widely opposed by other Alaska fishing groups and the City and Borough of Kenai. The Alliance hopes to fast-track the setnet ban case, Singer said, so that a decision is made in the next few months.

Pebble point/counterpoint

Reactions last week by Alaska's U.S. senators differed widely to the Environmental Protection Agency's conclusion that the Pebble mine would be "devastating" to the Bristol Bay salmon fishery and Native culture. That sets the stage for the agency to use its authority under the Clean Water Act to permanently ban mining in the region.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski was critical of what she terms a "pre-emptive" veto and not following a clear process.

"I had expressed concern about an effort to prejudge where there has not been a plan that is clearly delineated, permit applications have not been made and the required analysis completed," she said in a phone conversation. "The project is not located on federal lands, it's on state lands, and you have a federal agency weighing in ahead of such time as there has been a clear project outlined."

The EPA weighed in at the request of more than a dozen Alaska Native tribes in the Southwest region.

Sen. Mark Begich had a different stance, calling Pebble "the wrong mine in the wrong place."

The "science" drove his decision, Begich said, and a visit to Red Dog, an open pit zinc mine near Kotzebue that he supports -- reinforced it.

"In my view, that specific type of mine could devastate the long-term subsistence, commercial and recreational fisheries, and I felt it was not worth trading off a nonrenewable resource for a renewable resource," Begich said.

Acoustics comments extended

NOAA Fisheries has agreed to a 45-day extension for comments on its draft study of how man-made noises affect marine mammals. The deadline was set for Monday but extended to March 13 at the urging of Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who was irate when the agency put out its notice during the holidays and few people were aware of it.

The "Draft Guidance for Assessing the Effects of Anthropogenic (manmade) Sound on Marine Mammals" will be used by federal agencies and other stakeholders to predict a marine mammal's response to sounds exposure from activities including construction, shipping, resource development and military operations.

Fish watch

Alaska's share of this year's halibut catch will be just less than 20 million pounds, down about 11 percent from 2013. Southeast Alaska was the only region where the catch limit increased, topping 4 million pounds. The halibut fishery will run from March 8 to Nov. 7.

Alaska's pollock fisheries began on Jan. 20 in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska. The Bering Sea catch will be nearly 3 billion pounds this year; another 4 million pounds will come from the Gulf, up nearly 45 percent from last year. Trawlers also are targeting cod and various flat fish in both regions.

The Bering Sea snow crab catch has topped 30 percent of the 48.5 million-pound harvest limit. Crabbers also are targeting Tanner crab and golden kings along the Aleutians.

Southeast crabbers will drop pots for Tanners and goldens in early February.

A fishery opened on Friday for seven different kinds of rockfish in the Panhandle, and trollers are still out on the water for winter chinook.

Fish bucks give back

American Seafoods Company is again calling for applications for its Community Grants program.

A total of $30,000 will be given to projects addressing issues of hunger, housing, safety, education, research, natural resources and cultural activities. The majority of grant awards range from $500 to $3,000.

Deadline to apply is Feb. 12; recipients will be selected by a community advisory board on Feb. 19. Contact Kim Lynch at kim.lynch@americanseafoods. com or 206-256-2659.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at msfish@alaska.com.

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