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Cook Inlet commercial interests launch all-out attack on personal use and sport fishing

Kevin Delaney
OPINION: Fighting over fish in the Upper Cook Inlet is nothing new. Both sport and commercial groups have has aggressively sought to a share of the catch for years. But the current attack on personal use and sport fishing by commercial users goes far beyond anything in the past. Loren Holmes photo

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial fishing group that represents the Cook Inlet drift gill net fleet, and a number of its members are using the Alaska Board of Fisheries to launch an all-out attack on personal-use and sport fishing in Southcentral Alaska. A series of almost 50 proposals submitted by UCIDA to the board aim to undermine the harvest of salmon by non-commercial users.

The BOF will meet to deliberate these proposals and others in Anchorage Jan. 31 through Feb. 13, 2014. Board involvement in Upper Cook Inlet “fish wars’’ is nothing new. Both sport and commercial groups have aggressively sought to defend or gain catch share over the years. But UCIDA’s current attack on personal use and sport fishing goes far beyond anything in the past.

Four user groups -- commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence -- now compete for five species of salmon in the Inlet. The region itself is home to more than 375,000 Alaskans, or 60 percent of the state’s population. The complex, mixed-stock nature and competing user demands of the fisheries in the Inlet are unique in the state.

The Board of Fisheries attempted to bring some order to the chaos in 1977. Policy 77-27-FB policy allocated fish “primarily” to sport users prior to July 1, commercial users from that date to Aug. 15, and sport again after that. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game was at that time also directed “to manage the upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries to minimize the incidental take of ‘Susitna coho,’ ‘Kenai king’ and ‘early Kenai coho,’” harvest-sensitive species, all of which are present in the marine waters during the July 1 to Aug. 15 time period. This policy stands today as 5 AAC 21.363.

The term “minimize” was addressed in the later versions of the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan by the addition of prescriptive directions for the in-season management of Northern District coho, late run Kenai king and early run Kenai coho. Now these prescriptive management directives are found in the various sockeye, king and other step-down management plans for various river systems.

UCIDA and friends began their attack on the existing plan with Proposal 136, which seeks to strip the Drift Gillnet Management Plan directives designed to ensure adequate escapements of Susitna Valley and Kenai coho salmon to sport fisheries there.

UCIDA wants to remove the “conservation corridor” designed to allow salmon into north areas. It also wants to remove sub-district designations that provide ADFG managers the tools to protect weak stocks of salmon and add weeks to the driftnet season. It wants to lower the number of spawning sockeye salmon required in the Kenai River so as to allow more fishing time for the drift gillnet fishery. In a year of average abundance, these proposals alone would result in at least 500,000 fewer sockeye, coho and chum salmon reaching streams and rivers that support the personal use and sport fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet.

But UCIDA and UCIDA members don’t stop there. They also seek to reduce the limit for personal-use dipnet fishery by at least 50 percent and prohibit dipnetting from boats. They want to prohibit catch and release of all salmon all of the time, prohibit the use of bait at any time, and require barbless hooks at all times. And they want to prohibit sport fishing for coho salmon in the Little Susitna River on Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays -- a poke in the eye of working folk throughout the region.

There are other proposals, almost 40 more, that seek to further expand UCIDA’s opportunity to fish, or dramatically reduce the opportunity for personal use and sport fishermen. UCIDA might have chosen to forward the BOF a progressive suite of proposals to optimize fishing opportunity and economic value for its members while also acknowledging the legitimate but competing values of personal use, sport and other commercial fisheries. But it didn’t do that. Instead, UCIDA came up with a plan to maximize the catch of Cook Inlet salmon for its 560 members and leave only table scraps for everyone else. This despite the fact that over the past decade the sport harvest in Cook Inlet has averaged only 11 percent of the annual catch and the personal-use harvest a mere 8 percent.

Kevin Delaney is a former director of the Alaska Division of Sport Fish and now a fisheries consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.