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Pending decisions may change face of Alaska fishing forever

Two hearings this month could change the face of Alaska's salmon fisheries forever.

On Aug. 21, the Department of Natural Resources will hear both sides on competing claims to water rights for salmon streams at Upper Cook Inlet's Chuitna River or for a proposed coal mine. If the department opts for the mine, the decision would establish a state precedent, according to critics.

"It would be the first time in Alaska's state history that we would allow an Outside corporation to mine completely through a salmon stream," said Bob Shavelson, a director at the environmental organization Cook Inletkeeper. "And the sole purpose is to ship coal to China. It is really a very dangerous precedent, because if they can do it here in Cook Inlet, they will be able to do it anywhere in the state."

Cook Inletkeeper, along with the Chuitna Citizens Coalition and Alaska Center for the Environment, requested the hearing. They want to protect spawning tributaries of the salmon-rich Chuitna.

Already, Chuitna king salmon are labeled a stock of concern, which the state Department of Fish and Game describes as "a concern arising from a chronic inability, despite the use of specific management measures, to maintain yields, or harvestable surpluses, above a stock's escapement needs."

PacRim Coal of Delaware and Texas wants to dewater the streams and dig Alaska's largest coal mine.

DNR Water Resources Chief Dave Schade agreed that the decision is precedent-setting, and it comes down to "saying yes to one applicant and no to the other."

The hearing is at the U.S. Federal Building Annex in Anchorage. Testimony is limited to participants in the case and no public comments are scheduled to be taken. A decision is expected by Oct. 9.

Following the water rights hearing will be oral arguments before the Alaska Supreme Court on Aug. 26 on the setnet ban proposed for Cook Inlet and five other "urban, nonsubsistence" Alaska regions.

At issue is whether removing setnetters is a resource allocation measure, which some say cannot be determined by voters under Alaska's Constitution. The court decision will determine if the question can be put before voters in the primary election next August.

The ban is being pushed and bankrolled by the Kenai-based sports fishing group Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, which claims the issue is not allocative and targets a single gear group. The alliance insists salmon setnets indiscriminately kill other species.

"I believe now more than ever that Alaskans want to end the devastating and outdated mode of commercial fishing called setnetting," alliance president Joe Connors said at a June press conference. "It is time for setnets in urban Alaska to go away. It's time for fish to come first."

The state of Alaska disagrees.

"Looking over the last 10 years, the setnet harvest is comprised of 99.996 percent salmon. It's a very, very low number of other species caught. It's almost not measurable," said Jeff Regnart, director of the state's Commercial Fisheries Division. Regnart called bringing fish allocation issues to the ballot box "bad public policy."

There are more than 2,200 setnet operations in Alaska; 735 are located in Cook Inlet.

Relief for domestic fish companies

Companies getting clobbered by low-cost imports can get relief from federal trade adjustment assistance programs.

"Basically, if it's a product that competes with imports and the domestic firm is losing ground, assistance can be available," said David Holbert, executive director of the Seattle-based Northwest Trade Adjustment Assistance Center.

It's part of a nationwide program started more than 30 years ago by the U.S. Commerce Department, as a way to help domestic manufacturers facing competitive disadvantages caused by global trade deals. The programs include small and medium sized businesses in other sectors, such as agriculture and fishing.

"These companies are going to have to do something different. They are not going to win by just trying harder, they need outside expertise. And that is the key as to why this program is so successful," Holbert said.

Eligible businesses need to show a drop in employment and in sales or production and other trade criteria. The program requires some matching costs -- smaller companies with less than $1 million dollars in sales can receive up to 75 percent in matching funds up to $30,000.

An eligible company works with the center to create a strategic plan; then the center contracts with experts to put the plans into action. Holbert said creating marketing tools such as brochures and labels, brands and logos, and website development are top choices.

"It's all customized, not off-the-shelf programs," Holbert said. "We talk to the company and see what their ideas are, what they need and want."

Holbert said many Alaska salmon businesses may be candidates for the funds.

"One would expect with this extreme swing in prices this year, some fishermen would choose not to fish and that would bring down domestic production," he said. "One also has to suspect that this is due to the availability of cheaper imports. Alaska's salmon fishery is known as a sustainable fishery, and there are tremendous values other than the pure price that can be brought into play."

Holbert stressed that the trade assistance program is confidential.

How valuable is ASMI?

A portion of Alaska fishermen's harvest supports operations of the state's lone marketing arm, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute. A fee is paid by processors based on 0.5 percent of dockside values.

A new survey by the McDowell Group is asking for feedback from fishermen about how well ASMI is doing.

"Your answers to the following questions are greatly appreciated, and will help ASMI meet its mission of increasing the economic value of Alaska seafood. Answers provided on this survey will be reported collectively and will not be attributed to you," the survey announcement said. Find the ASMI industry report card here.

Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based commercial fishing columnist. Contact her at msfish@alaskan.com.