A group looking to ban commercial setnets in Alaska's urban areas submitted 43,000 signatures to the Division of Elections on Wednesday, asking that voters consider the ban in the August 2016 primary election.
The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance needed to submit only 30,000 signatures to advance the effort. The Division of Elections now has 60 days to verify the signatures and determine whether the issue can go on the ballot.
The ban would prohibit the use of setnet gear near urban areas including Fairbanks, Anchorage, Juneau, Valdez and Ketchikan. However, the ban is aimed mainly at Cook Inlet, particularly at setnetters along the Kenai Peninsula targeting salmon headed toward the Kenai River, a popular sportfishing destination famed for its king salmon, which have declined in recent years.
The AFCA needs more than just Division of Elections approval before voters can consider the measure. The state continues to challenge the initiative, saying the setnet issue should be left to the Alaska Board of Fish, not the voters.
The submission of signatures is the latest step in a multiyear struggle to get the issue on the ballot.
After the AFCA in late 2013 submitted its petition to ban setnets, then-Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell sided with the Alaska Department of Law in finding that the initiative was unconstitutional, since it let voters decide an allocation of resources. AFCA challenged that decision in Superior Court in April. In an order, the court overturned the state's decision, allowing the group to move forward with signature gathering.
The state is now appealing that decision to the Alaska Supreme Court.
On Wednesday, AFCA board members acknowledged the pending litigation, and they are continuing to challenge it, according to attorney Matt Singer. However, campaigning is on hold until a court decision is reached.
In a press conference, board members continued to make their case for the initiative. They argued setnets are an outdated, inefficient way of catching sockeye salmon that captures too many king salmon and other animals, including sharks, birds and other species of fish.
AFCA board member Bob Penney, founding member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, noted the group was not against commercial fishing but only against what he called "predatory" setnets.
"We support commercial fishing in Alaska, strongly. We just want to ban one type of net that creates too much bycatch and other negative economic impacts," he said Wednesday.
He noted that other states including Texas, Alabama, Louisiana, Florida, New York and California have banned setnets, and Washington and Oregon also are imposing severe restrictions on them.
But Jim Butler, president of Resources for All Alaskans, doesn't agree that the issue is about setnets. Butler said if setnets are the issue, why not ban them statewide and not just in urban areas?
"That demonstrates some of the hypocrisy," he said in a phone interview Wednesday. "If this is such a bad thing -- which of course has been managed by the state, licensed by the state for decades -- if it's such bad thing, why isn't it bad everywhere?"
Butler, a longtime setnetter whose group was formed to fight the petition, submitted an amicus brief in the case supporting the state's position. He said the group would continue to fight the lawsuit and continue challenging the initiative if it goes to a vote.