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Setnet ban backers heading to court over denied ballot initiative

Craig Medred

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance has gone to court in an effort to allow voters to decide whether commercial salmon setnets should be banned in Cook Inlet and other urban areas of Alaska.

At a sometimes contentious press conference with reporters and some setnetters on Wednesday in Anchorage, the group expressed the belief that 49th state voters have a fundamental right to decide the types of gear used to catch fish in Alaska.

One of the first statewide votes put to the people was an initiative to ban fish traps. Fish traps, which direct fish into pens where they can be held until scooped out and processed, had been an Alaska institution prior to statehood. The owners of the fish traps were not compensated for being put out of business.

Matt Singer, an attorney for the Alliance, said setnets are in their way no different than fish traps. Those engaged in the setnet fishery, however, saw it otherwise.

"Why is it OK for me to lose my job?" asked author, former Alaska Magazine editor, and Cook Inlet fisherman Andy Hall.

"There's no question, certainly in our mind, that that's a legitimate concern," answered Anchorage's Bill MacKay, the chair of the board. He said the alliances would welcome a discussion of mitigation for setnetters shut down by a ban. Alliance members have in the past suggested such things as compensation for the fishermen or converting setnets to some sort of other gear type.

The problem with setnets, Alliance president Joe Connors said, is that they are "indiscriminate." Connors is a former setnetter, who admitted his nets caught sharks, seabirds, starry flounder, and whatever else was swimming past.

But the nets are intended primarily to catch red or sockeye salmon. The problem of the times is that they also catch a significant number of kings, also called chinook salmon.

Approximately 2,800 king salmon were killed in Cook Inlet commercial net fisheries last summer, the vast majority of them in the setnet fishery, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. Anglers on the river killed another 1,620 and were blamed for the death of 42 more in a catch-and-release fishery, intended to allow limited fishing opportunities during weak runs.

Weaker return of late-run kings forecast

Despite the catch-and-release restriction and other restrictions on the in-river fishery, Fish and Game says the river barely met its minimum spawning goal of 15,000 late-run kings. It pegs the spawners at 15,395.

Some conservationists have questioned the accuracy of that count, and others have noted that given the margin of error in the sonar technology used to count the fish, the number of kings actually reaching the spawning grounds could be considerably below or above that mark.

State biologists agree they'd like to see more than 15,395 late-run kings get past fishermen of all types, but it isn't likely that's going to happen any time soon.

The agency is expecting an even weaker return of late-run kings to the river this year than last. The reasons why appear unclear but are believed to be related to poor ocean survival. The Board of Fisheries is to begin meeting in Anchorage at the end of the month to consider how to deal with the projected weak run.

Setnetter Mark Ducker has proposed to the board it make life easier for fishermen by simply lowering the minimum spawning goal for Kenai kings to 12,000. The goal was last year lowered to 15,000. Commercial fisheries biologists with the state have said they're not opposed to dropping it again despite a lengthy scientific study that determined 15,000 was the bare minimum goal if a robust Kenai run is to be maintained.

Once above 50,000 fish per year, the return of the kings is now down to this year's projection of 19,700. MacKay said concerns about setnets and their bycatch of these fish stemmed from the ever-decreasing number of big kings. The issue, he said, is solely about "conservation."

Others, however, have challenged that. The state attorney general's opinion advising Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell to block a vote on the initiative to ban setnets said it would constitute a constitutionally illegal allocation of a state resource by taking the fish away from one user group -- setnetters -- and potentially giving fish to another user group -- in-river anglers or personal-use dipnetters.

Singer noted that the state attorney general raised no such objection when state voters were twice allowed to vote on taking highly valuable wolf skins away from aerial wolf hunters to allocate them to wolf photographers and wolf lovers. But aerial wolf hunters are, in general, a group considered "bad" people, and Alaska commercial fishermen are, in general, a group considered "good" people in the 49th state.

Tough questions from the press

That did not stop Kenai radio reporter Catie Quinn from demanding to know why the Alliance wasn't pushing for a limit on the number of Kenai guides and a ban on fishing on spawning grounds. Connors said it wouldn't matter.

Kenai fishing guides, he said, "are at the lowest number in 20 years." And he and others pointed out that fishing on the spawning grounds is now all but banned. Early-run Kenai kings spawn in the Funny and Killey rivers and a few other upstream Kenai tributaries that have been closed to fishing for decades. Nearly all late-run kings spawn upriver from the Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna. That portion of the river has regularly been closed to king salmon fishing when runs are weak. And the season for late-run fish ends on July 31 before most of the late-run fish even begin to spawn.

None of which stopped a commendably aggressive press corps from going after members of the Alliance.

Molly Dischner, a reporter for the Alaska Journal of Commerce, demanded to know why the Alliance wasn't proposing further restrictions on in-river anglers when anglers and commercial netters were catching "similar" numbers of the fish.

"I think the numbers were significantly different," Connors said.

"That's not true," Dischner shot back.

The exact numbers, according to Fish and Game are, 2,256 for the commercial setnet fishery and 426 for the commercial driftnet fishery for a total of 2,682, and 1,578 for the sport fishery, plus and estimated 42 dead as a result of catch and release fishing, for a total of 1,620.

The 40 percent difference between the figures might or might not be significant. Much is open to interpretation in Alaska's fish wars.

And at the end of the day, Singer said, it's largely "beside the point."

Alaska voters, he believes, have broad rights to decide how fish and game are killed in the 49th state. It was one of the very ideas around which statehood coalesced, he noted. It will remain now for a state judge, and possibly the state Supreme Court, to determine if he and the Conservation Alliance are right.

It's expected to be jolly good fight. The group's press conference wasn't even over before the Alaska Salmon Alliance, a commercial fishermen's group, had a statement out saying it was lining up behind the state.

"It's shameful to see a special interest group now force innocent Alaskans to fight for their jobs in court," Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alliance, said in that statement. "If passed, the set netter ban will instantly destroy the jobs of more than 500 Alaskan families."

"This initiative would primarily benefit privileged sport fishing interests."

A considerable number of the people who work the beaches as setnetters for a couple of months each summer would also qualify as "privileged." Among the 750 people who hold Cook Inlet setnet permits, the only people permitted to commercially fish setnets for salmon are doctors, schoolteachers, businessmen, oil field workers and others who make healthy salaries outside of the fishing business.

There is a lot of gray in Alaska fish politics, no matter how hard competing interests try to paint each other as black or white.

Contact Craig Medred at craig(at)alaskadispatch.com.