Opinions

Sport anglers have good reason to demand fair representation on Board of Fisheries

Gov. Bill Walker has nominated Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum and a resident of Soldotna, to fill a seat on the seven-member Alaska Board of Fisheries. If Mr. Ruffner is confirmed by the Alaska Legislature we will have one member each from Kodiak, Dillingham, Huslia, Petersburg, Soldotna, Fairbanks and Talkeetna, but no representative from the area with the largest population in the state. Serious questions of this nominee are in order given the long dominance of Kenai fishery commercial interests and institutions in Upper Cook Inlet salmon management, often at the expense of sport and personal use anglers in the rest of the Southcentral region.

I don't know Ruffner personally, but by all accounts he is a qualified candidate and his habitat protection work for the KWF is to be lauded. However, his fishery management experience is extremely limited so my opinion of his candidacy must be shaped from a review of his resume, personal communications with people I know and respect who also know Ruffner, his responses to questions at his confirmation hearings and from reading letters of recommendation and comments published in the media.

The last category, letters of recommendation and comments published in the media, gives good reason for sport anglers to be skeptical of this nomination. With a couple exceptions, the lion's share of documentable public support for Ruffner has come from the commercial fishing community -- both statewide from representatives of United Fishermen of Alaska and Icicle Seafoods and regionally from members of Cook Inlet's commercial drift and set gillnet fleets.

Since these organizations and individuals have been very vocal regarding management of Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, it has been a fairly easy task to collect the proposals these commercial interests have submitted to the Fish Board, the testimony they have given to the Legislature and the op-ed pieces of theirs that have been published in the Cook Inlet news media.

What follows is a partial list of proposals and positions that strong supporters of Ruffner have taken over the past 18 months:

• Reduce the minimum escapement goal for Kenai River late-run king salmon from 15,000 down to 11,000 so that commercial setnet fishermen can harvest more sockeye salmon that move along the beaches at the same time.

• Do away with a system of paired restrictions between the sportfishery for king salmon in the Kenai River and the setnet fishery during this time of historic low numbers of king salmon.

• Get rid of management "window" closures of the setnet fishery that allow late-run king and sockeye salmon to enter the Kenai and Kasilof rivers in an effort to achieve escapement goals and provide opportunity for personal use and sportfisheries.

• Reduce the seasonal limit of sockeye salmon for Alaska resident personal use fishermen by 50 percent so that more can be harvested by the commercial fishery.

• Ban or severely reduce powerboats for sportfishing.

• Prohibit catch and release as a sportfish management tool.

• Repeal the "1 percent rule" that prescribes the orderly transition between the commercial-oriented management for sockeyes to a sport-oriented management for coho. This is a science-based management tool that implements a 35-year-old regulation directive for fishery managers to minimize the commercial harvest of coho salmon so that sport anglers can have a reasonable opportunity to harvest these fish.

• Opposed the development of a Cook Inlet conservation corridor through the use of time and area restrictions of the drift gillnet fleet even though the objective of this conservation corridor is to help achieve minimum escapement goals for Susitna sockeye and provide enough coho salmon for Mat-Su anglers to have a successful sportfishery.

These same interests who now support Ruffner have stated in testimony to the Fish Board that the highest value accruing from Upper Cook Inlet salmon comes from maximizing the commercial harvest. They have denigrated the state's policy for management of sustainable salmon fisheries, testified to the Legislature that the Fish Board process is broken and must be replaced, filed suit in federal court in an attempt to have Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries managed under federal oversight and filed suit in state court to have the region's commercial salmon fishing regulations overturned.

You can tell a lot about a person from the friends they keep, and Upper Cook Inlet sport anglers, if not the entire state, have much to be concerned about Ruffner's nomination. More than 50 percent of all sport and personal use fishing occurs in that region. My guess is that sometime this summer or next when the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries are subject to some new or more severe restriction, the 41 percent of the state's population that calls Anchorage home is going to wake up to the fact that they have no direct representation on the Fish Board. They will be relegated to watching from the banks while commercial nets remain in the water.

Kevin Delaney, a former director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish, is now a fisheries consultant for the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.

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