Coastal erosion could change commercial fishing boundaries

Changes to Alaska's coastline and creeks could affect fishing boundaries, but the state Board of Fisheries is waiting to weigh in on possible fixes until a new committee can delve into the issue.

At the Bristol Bay finfish meeting in Anchorage in early December, the board heard testimony from several setnetters asking the board to make their sites whole after time and tides have taken their toll.

No one questions whether Dick Armstrong fished the first Graveyard Point sites for decades. But over time, boundary markers have moved and Graveyard Creek has shifted its course, and the family says the sites they have fished for decades are no longer part of the legal Naknek-Kvichak fishing district. So the entire and extended Armstrong clan asked the board to change a boundary at Graveyard Point.

At Clark's Point, the opposite has occurred: the mud flats have filled in, reducing the fishing time for several sites. So setnetters asked the board to allow them to put their nets farther out into the ocean. That proposal was submitted by Alannah Hurley, with support from those at most adjacent sites, and others in the region.

The board tabled those requests, instead forming a new committee to consider just how the board should react to environmental change, whether it occurs in Bristol Bay or elsewhere on Alaska's coast. Board Chair Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna proposed waiting and forming the committee instead.

"I think it's a really important thing for us to address," Kluberton said at the meeting. "We know these things came on over a long period of time, but after this meeting I'm absolutely certain we're going to see an ever-increasing volume of these kinds of things."

The new committee is tasked with developing a set of criteria for the board to consider when they look at regulation changes due to erosion issues, new coastline, lost coastline and similar issues. Board members Reed Morisky, who has experience with construction, and Robert Mumford, who has enforcement experience, were named as members and asked to consult with the state's Department of Natural Resources and Department of Law. Other board members also said they want to participate in the committee's meetings.


The board discussed having the committee work quickly to address the issues but did not commit to a firm timeline, in part because Kluberton said they can't control the schedules of the other departments.

The committee is tentatively expected to report back on its progress at the board's January meeting in Fairbanks, focused on the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim region.

The board's action is a little slower than what setnetters were looking for, and it's unclear if the issues will wind up resolved before next summer.

Dillingham's Janet Armstrong-Schlagel said she had hoped the board would take action at this meeting to fix the issue but understood the board's choice to be more deliberate.

"But at this meeting we have heard of many other areas that have suffered the erosion," she said. "I didn't realize that so many other setnetters were affected by it. So I think that if we are going to set the precedent, we can do it for the benefit of many people. So it's frustrating that we did not get a resolution but I'm encouraged that they aren't just kicking it down the road."

Board member Fritz Johnson, a drift permit holder from Dillingham, said he would've preferred the board take swifter action to fix a known problem but accepted that the committee approach was appropriate.

"I wish we could solve this problem immediately for the folks on this beach, but I'm guessing that what has been suggested is that we take a broader view and a longer-term view, because we will be facing this situation again, I'm sure," he said.

Board members noted again and again that their action could set a precedent for how they respond to similar situations in the future; that was heard in public testimony during the meeting too.

Although the issue at each site is a little different, Armstrong-Schlagel said everyone's in the same boat.

"It's a pretty emotional thing," she said. "We're not just talking about lines, we're talking about people's livelihoods."

This story first appeared in The Bristol Bay Times/Dutch Harbor Fisherman and is republished here with permission.