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Ballot initiative to ban commercial Cook Inlet setnets revs up in Alaska

Craig Medred

A former New York-state commercial fishermen turned Kenai River fishing guide is leading a drive to ban set-net fishing in Cook Inlet south of Anchorage and near other urban centers.

Joe Connors and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance (ACFA) say the use of indiscriminate setnets threatens king salmon in the Kenai River and other fish elsewhere. The group Wednesday presented Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell with the paperwork necessary to gain approval for a ballot initiative, which would allow voters next year to vote on whether to ban "setnet fishing in the five, urban, non-subsistence areas of Alaska."

"This ballot measure would not affect set nets in the 90 percent of the state that is designated a subsistence or rural area," a press release from the Alliance said. "Set nets are less intrusive and a reasonable means of fishing in low population areas. However, ACFA believes it is time that set nets are banned in the urban, highly populated centers of Alaska."

The Kenai Peninsula is ground zero for the battle.

Connors, a former University of Alaska Anchorage professor, and others contend that setnets off the river's mouth are doing to Kenai kings what setnets in New York’s Hudson River did to shad -- wiping them out.

Connors used to pick shad from nets on the Hudson in the late 1950s. The shad are now almost gone from the Hudson, he said Wednesday. He fears the same could happen to Kenai kings.

Those fish have been in decline for years for reasons that remain unclear. The return this July and August was the lowest on record, though setnetters say they're not to blame. They caught only about 3,000 of the big fish, far fewer than normal.

And they argue they aren't really trying to catch kings anyway. They're fishing for red salmon that return by the millions, and they inadvertently catch some kings in the process.

This bycatch has locked about 1,000 setnet permit holders in a bitter, decades-long battle with tens of thousands of Kenai anglers and personal-use dipnetters, who work the mouth of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers for about a month. Setnetters were shutdown for nearly the entire 2012 fishing season, when stringent regulations were put in place to protect kings.

After that happened, the netters appealed to the Board of Fisheries to relax the regulations, and they saw their wish granted. This summer, setnetters fished while the king-salmon fishing efforts of dipnetters and anglers were restricted. The latter saw the rod-and-reel fishery for kings closed. The former were ordered to release unharmed any kings they happened to catch.

Dipnetters, like setnetters, sometimes catch kings by accident. But dipnetters, unlike setnetters, can usually release the fish without serious harm. Many kings caught in setnets become entangled and die before they are pulled from the water. Those dead fish anger those involved with the Alliance -- just as the ever-growing invasion of the Kenai by anglers and dipnetters from Anchorage, the state's largest city, and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, the state's fastest growing area, anger setnetters and commercial fishermen, who once thought they owned the Cook Inlet fisheries.

An initiative drive is unlikely to tamp down emotions that run high on both sides. But Connors argues the time to act has come. The Alliance notes that six other states -- Texas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New York and California -- have banned set nets because they catch fish indiscriminately. And two states -- Washington and Oregon – have severely restricted the use of such nets.

Commercial fishermen counter that anglers and dipnetters already have too much influence in fisheries management in the 49th state and have actually caused the underharvest of some salmon stocks. The United Cook Inlet Driftnet Association is now in a U.S. court arguing the federal government should intervene in management of Cook Inlet salmon because the state refuses to allow harvest as the level of maximum sustained yield.

These are the sort of salmon wars that have been going on in Alaska for decades. There is no sign they are going to end soon.

The initiative will need the signatures of about 31,000 registered Alaska voters to get on the ballot, but Connors doesn't anticipate a problem getting those signatures.

"I'm sure it's not going to be that difficult," Connors said.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com