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With court date on ballot measure looming, Kenai setnetters ponder their future

KENAI -- This summer, just as they have done for generations, setnetters are working the shores of the western Kenai Peninsula, stringing out nets and hauling in hundreds of thousands of fish from the abundant sockeye salmon runs of Southcentral Alaska.

But along with those sockeyes, the setnetters also pull thousands of king salmon from the waters of Cook Inlet. And it's those kings -- Alaska's best-known, most-marketable fish and one that has seen increasingly troublesome declines in recent years -- that have made setnetters the target of a statewide ballot initiative that could eliminate the longtime fishery.

Last month, the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted 43,000 signatures to the Alaska Division of Elections to certify an initiative that would ban setnets in Alaska's urban areas. If approved by voters, the initiative would outlaw setnets in the five designated urban areas of Alaska, including Valdez, Ketchikan, Fairbanks -- and the Kenai Peninsula.

At its heart, the ballot initiative is about the same thing that most fishery disputes are about in Alaska: the merits of sport-versus-commercial fishing, and how fish that both of those groups target are managed. Sport fishermen say it's the setnetters threatening the kings of Southcentral; setnetters say it's the other way around.

In the case of the declining kings, as the runs dwindle, both sides of the debate are losing something. And if the setnetting ban passes in 2016, one group says they stand to lose everything.

Working the beach

It's 10:30 on a warm and sunny Thursday morning and for the setnet fishermen at the Kenai Salmon Co., things are busy.

A "T-bar," a metal pipe stuck into Cook Inlet water a few hundred feet off shore, has disappeared sometime overnight. With no set point in the ocean, the four setnets that line the beach are starting to come adrift with the shifting tides, unlikely to catch many fish.

So the 12-person crew is running around camp located about a mile north of the mouth of the Kenai River, some trying to load a rusty anchor into a skiff to serve as a temporary solution to the broken bar. As half of the crew tries to load the anchor, the other half takes another trailer and sets out to adjust beach anchors that keep the nets pulled close to shore. Each one is connected to a complex pulley system with 1,500 feet of line per net, and with the missing T-bar, each one now needs adjusting.

That same crew has fished its four inner nets and two outer nets since 5 a.m. and been on the beach since 3 a.m. They'll keep going until 7 p.m., when commercial fisheries managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will close the operation for the day.

It's part of the constant cycle of fishing for setnetters on the Kenai Peninsula and part of what keeps people like Eli Butler doing it. Speaking from the beach last week, Eli Butler -- pronounced like Ellie -- said it's hard work that has to be done every day no matter what, whether hundreds or just a few dozen fish are caught.

Butler's dad and mom, Jim and Tana, own the site along with their business partner, Rick Vollertsen. Eli Butler and her family -- including brothers, sisters and cousins -- have been fishing the site located a mile from the mouth of the Kenai River since 2005.

For Butler, now 19, setnetting is about a lot of things. It includes the camaraderie of the crew, hard work of pulling the nets in and out, solving problems like the broken T-bar, and catching thousands of salmon from the nets over the course of the season.

"There's nothing quite like it," she said of working the site.

But the Butlers' whole operation might have an expiration date.

The initiative's target is setnetters on the Kenai and the king salmon they catch each year. While a small part of their overall catch -- setnetters are targeting sockeye salmon -- they catch some kings in the process.

Last year, 496 setnet permits were fished in Cook Inlet. Those setnetters caught a total of 842,356 sockeye salmon and 4,278 kings. Of those kings, Fish and Game estimates that 1,446 were bound for the Kenai River.

For comparison, the sportfish harvest in 2014 below Soldotna was 539 kings.

Whether the setnet vote even makes it to the ballot is still up in the air, with setnetting groups and the state challenging the legality of the initiative in the Alaska Supreme Court. Oral arguments in the case are set for late August.

'I’m an accountant to be a fisherman'

The issue, both at the legal and personal level, is whether the initiative amounts to an allocation of fish or gear ban.

Allocation is a matter for the board of fish and the Alaska Legislature, but gear types have been decided at the ballot box before. Bear baiting and aerial wolf hunting are the most recent examples, though banning gear by vote goes back to before statehood, when territorial residents banned the use of fish traps.

If the initiative does make it on the ballot, Jim Butler, president of Resources for All Alaskans, considers it a "popular vote to put us out of business."

But backers of the initiative say it's about conservation of those Kenai king salmon, which have seen dramatic declines in recent years.

Joe Connors, president of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance and a former setnetter-turned-lodge owner, said he'll never target another king in his life. He sees other user groups as doing their part to help with king conservation, but he doesn't see that with setnetters.

"Show me the proof. Show me where they're trying to get kings into the river," Connors said in a phone interview last week. "It's not their fault, the nets kill. Maybe if they could let some go if (the kings) they were alive, but other than that, they don't have many choices."

But Jim Butler and other setnetters will tell you the opposite is true, that the ballot measure comes down to an effort to get more fish to sportfishing and personal-use fishermen, not conservation.

Butler and others argue that the Cook Inlet setnet fishery has been around for over 100 years. It's the sportfishing interest they say has only emerged in the last 40 years that has impacted the king runs, not the setnetters.

Setnetter Joe Moore runs operations for the Kenai Salmon Co. He said over the years there have been small, incremental changes that have altered how the seasons work. It's now much shorter than when he started fishing 32 seasons ago.

Gone is the predictability, and with it, much of the money. He said the season is so short now -- only about six weeks -- that you either hit the run or you don't.

"I used to say I was a fisherman so I could be an accountant," he said. "Now I'm an accountant to be a fisherman."

But for him, the biggest change comes from the in-river pressure he said used to not be there.

Butler agrees. He's found it harder to justify continued improvements in his operation. If the ban is approved, he said the entire operation will be rendered worthless.

If the initiative does get struck down by the court, or voted down by popular vote, both Butler and Moore think that would be good for setnetters, but won't do anything to change the pressure on their industry.

"I don't think there's anything that could change it," Moore said. "You just try to survive."

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