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Under guise of conservation, anti-setnet initiative seeks to reallocate Cook Inlet salmon

  • Author: Zach Hill
  • Updated: June 29, 2016
  • Published November 21, 2013

The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance (AFCA) recently announced plans to seek approval to gather signatures for a future statewide ballot initiative seeking to prohibit setnets from urban areas, including Anchorage, Fairbanks, Valdez, Juneau and Ketchikan in the name of conserving salmon stocks. I've never heard anyone in Fairbanks complain about setnets threatening local salmon stocks. There are no commercial set net fisheries in Valdez, Juneau or Ketchikan. This effort is clearly targeting the Upper Cook Inlet setnet fishery and its harvest of king salmon bound for rivers on the road system, but the AFCA is hoping that Alaskan voters aren't smart enough to figure that out.

This initiative is a conservation issue in name only. Its true goal is to reallocate fish from commercial to sport/guided/personal use. This was done in order to sidestep our state constitution and a 1995 Alaska Supreme Court ruling. They hope to fool the Department of Law into allowing them to collect signatures to put the issue to voters. Using a campaign of misinformation and pointing fingers, they aim to gain what established public process has continually denied them: decreased competition for sport and personal use fishermen, not necessarily more fish.

The AFCA would like you to think that the Kenai River king salmon run is endangered. It's not. The minimum escapement goal for king salmon on the Kenai has been met each year for the past 27 years, and has exceeded the upper escapement goal in 5 out of the past 10 years. They would like you to think that the Upper Cook Inlet setnet fishery harvests a disproportionate number of the king salmon bound for the Kenai River. It does not. Over the past 10 years the total setnet king salmon harvest was roughly 121,000 fish, while the sport harvest was 107,000 fish. They would like you to think that their proposed initiative to outlaw setnets in "urban areas" is an act of conservation, when in actuality it is an attempt to circumvent science-based management and reallocate Alaska's natural resources for their own special interest.

The Board of Fisheries exists to "conserve and develop the fishery resources of the state." This includes making "allocative decisions" between subsistence, commercial, sport, guided sport and personal-use fisheries. Ideally, the Board takes the input of stakeholders -- fishermen, community leaders, regional advisory boards, Fish and Game biologists -- and adopts, repeals or amends state fisheries regulations. The Department of Fish and Game is then tasked with managing fisheries in accordance with those regulations, with the sustained yield principle in mind. The AFCA has decided that this public process, and science-based management is no longer good enough for them. Rather than working to help find a solution that might satisfy all user groups and stakeholders, they are attempting to eliminate their opposition and steal those salmon for themselves.

Salmon have been harvested by use of setnets in Cook Inlet for decades. Setnets were there in 2005 when more than 125,000 king salmon returned to the Kenai River, as well as in 1987 when over 100,000 kings came back. In 2012, there were 620 setnet permits fished in Upper Cook Inlet. That is 620 small business owners who have equipment, real estate, time and sweat invested in their operations. They support employees; they support small businesses on the Kenai Peninsula. Eighty-four percent of them are Alaskans. When you add it all up, the AFCA is proposing to eliminate thousands of Alaska jobs, not to mention a way of life, history and culture that has been passed down through generations of Alaskans on the Kenai Peninsula.

Alaska is experiencing a period of reduced king salmon abundance statewide. While the overall escapement goal on the Kenai has routinely been met, the early run on the Kenai has struggled to meet minimum escapement goals in recent years. Are setnets the problem there? It is unlikely, considering that there are no setnets in the water while the early run is making its way to the river.

If conservation is the AFCA's true aim, why are they not asking questions or concerned about the ocean survival of juvenile king salmon? Why are they not making efforts to repair in-river spawning habitat that has been exposed to decades of erosion due to high-powered sport boats and pollution from outboard motors? Alaskans must see that it's because they don't really care about conserving the resource -- they just seek more fish for sport charter businesses and don't care if it's at the expense of a valuable commercial fishery and culture that has been in place for nearly a century.

Zach Hill lives in Anchorage and Homer, seines for salmon in Kodiak, and is an avid skier and sport fisherman.

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.

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