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Court finds urban setnet ban initiative can move forward

Suzanna CaldwellAlaska Dispatch News
Setnetters pick fish from nets in Cook Inlet in this photo from 1989. On Wednesday, a Superior Court judge ruled in favor of a group looking to ban commercial setnet fishing in Alaska's urban areas, saying the measure can go before voters. State of Alaska photo

A group looking to introduce a ballot initiative that would ban commercial setnets in Alaska’s urban areas received approval to move forward Wednesday.

State Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter overturned the state’s decision to reject a ballot initiative that, if passed, would ban setnets in the state’s urban areas.

Clark Penney, executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, the group behind the initiative, praised the court’s decision in a statement. Penney said the group would be acting swiftly to begin gathering signatures to bring the ballot measure to the 2016 primary ballot.

While the law would apply to all urban areas of the state -- including Fairbanks, Juneau and Valdez -- the group’s main target is the Cook Inlet commercial setnet fleet. They argue that setnets are an antiquated model that catches too many king salmon while setnetters are targeting sockeye salmon bound for the Kenai River.

Kings have had poor returns on Cook Inlet rivers in recent years, forcing strict conservation measures among the commercial and sportfishing industries on the Kenai Peninsula. In April, the court heard arguments for and against the initiative.

At issue was whether the proposed law allowed for an allocation of resources. The state argued it did, saying that banning setnets would effectively transfer the resource from one user group to another and constitute an appropriation, and in the process wipe out an entire part of the commercial fishery. The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance disagreed, saying the initiative simply banned a gear type they now consider to be outdated and harmful to king salmon.

“Urban commercial set netters are not a ‘user group’ any more so than sport fishers using fly rods are a distinct user group than those using spinning rods,” Easter wrote in her order.

She also noted that while the court “acknowledges the potential hardship on commercial set net fishers if (the initiative) is passed and eliminates an entire Cook Inlet fishery and economy, the court does not find that (the initiative) would endanger the state treasury or eliminates the fishery in order to target a specific user group.”

Jerry McCune, president of the United Fishermen of Alaska, expressed disappointment in the ruling and concerns that similar measures could have impacts on other types of resource development in the state. He wondered if other commercial fishing types in Alaska could potentially be at risk.

“Nobody wants people to particularly lose their jobs as commercial fishermen just because some guys want to put us out business,” he said from Cordova Wednesday.

McCune said the group plans to challenge the initiative.

“We will be fighting this until the end,” he said.

Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar said the state would be complying with order and evaluating its options. Any appeal would come at the direction of the attorney general.

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