A ballot initiative that would ban commercial setnets in Alaska's urban areas won't be heading to voters anytime soon, according to the Alaska Supreme Court.
The state's highest court Thursday overturned an Anchorage superior court decision that allowed the initiative to move forward.
The Supreme Court found that the lower court's ruling erred in deciding that the initiative was a gear ban, not an allocation of resources.
According to the Alaska Constitution, ballot initiatives cannot allocate resources.
In its 22-page opinion issued Thursday, the court wrote that the superior court found setnetters were not a "distinct commercial user group" and that the Legislature and Board of Fish would still "retain discretion to allocate salmon stock to other commercial fisheries." The Supreme Court disagreed, concluding that setnetters are a distinct user group and that the initiative would allocate salmon to other types of fisheries.
The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance collected 43,000 signatures in this summer in the effort to get the measure on the August 2016 primary ballot. The measure would have banned commercial setnet fishing in Alaska's urban areas but was targeted at fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula.
The Alliance argued the measure was to conserve king salmon, particularly on the Kenai River, where returns have dwindled in recent years. The organization, funded primarily through sportfishing advocate Bob Penney, contends setnets catch too many kings and are an indiscriminate method of catching fish.
Setnetters pushed back, saying the measure would wipe out their fishery, designed to target sockeye salmon, not kings.
Joe Connors, president of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, said he was shocked by the New Year's Eve decision.
"To me, it's a license now to kill everything that's out there and nobody seems to be concerned about that," he said in a phone interview Thursday.
But Jerry McCune, president of United Fishermen of Alaska, a commercial fisheries advocacy group, said if the Supreme Court had approved the ballot measure, it would have set precedent for other groups looking to limit any resource extraction they disagree with, like oil and gas.
"Which would have been catastrophic for Alaska," he said.
McCune said he and others against the ballot measure were relieved the Supreme Court had agreed with their position that the measure was an unconstitutional allocation of resources.
"I think we'll take a deep breath right now and savor the moment that we don't have to take an initiative on and spend a million dollars to defend the industry on vote," he said in a phone interview.
Connors said the Alliance would regroup about next steps in working toward conservation, though he acknowledged that the Supreme Court decision renders the initiative dead.
"Everything is costly, time-consuming and we've fought a good battle," he said. "And unfortunately, we didn't get the decision we would like, but we understand that."
Alaska Dispatch Publishing