More than 30 people crowded into a conference room Thursday to hear the Alaska Board of Fisheries consider a petition to open the East Forelands area of the setnet fishery in the Cook Inlet.
The teleconference site at the Kenai Legislative Information Office in Kenai was one of several locations in the state where users could tune in to hear the emergency board of fisheries meeting.
After several procedural questions and a long conversation about how the board could possibly provide relief to area setnetters, the board ultimately decided not to take action on any petitions, partially because they lacked adequate information to consider each petition.
The three setnetters who fish in the East Forelands section, which is North of the Kenai River near Nikiski, withdrew their support for the petition Wednesday so the board had to first decide to table that petition then to consider the six other petitions that were filed.
Board Chairman Karl Jonstone, of Anchorage, said each of the petitions had different reasons for requesting openings of the setnet fishery and support staff had not yet been able to provide comments on the petition as they had for the original one.
He asked if board members wanted to consider each petition on their own merit, discuss each one with staff during the morning meeting or refuse to take action on them.
Board member Bill Brown, of Juneau, said he didn't get the six petitions until late in the evening and couldn't digest them in time.
"I've seen no staff comments and while I'm sure our capable staff members could help us through them today, it would not be adequate. This is too important ... so I move we take no action on the remaining petitions because we received them too late to make an effective choice."
Sue Jeffrey, of Kodiak, objected to taking no action saying she wanted to hear reports from staff about the status of the fishery.
Board members asked several questions about potential ways to target sockeye salmon with the setnetters without harvesting king salmon including the feasibility of putting a test fishery of a few setnets away from the beach to see sample the harvest.
Jeff Regnart, commercial fisheries director for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game said the makeup of a fishery was more difficult to gather data for because it required genetic sampling and typically changed through time.
"It's difficult to get an assessment of that with just a few nets," he said. "It's one thing to try and get a feel for how gear might be fished with a few different configurations but trying to understand what a catch might look with a fleet — a full compliment — that would be difficult to glean with two or three or four nets."
Vince Webster, of King Salmon, said with only a couple of days left in the season whatever the board decides would be too little, too late.
"I think the department has, they've got the scientific staff on site, they've been monitoring this ... they're on site with the best minds in the world," he said. "For us to do something last minute for couple of days at the end of the season, to be an armchair quarterback, I think, in my mind It'd be irresponsible to do that."
Jeffrey said it only took a few days to make or break a season for a setnetter.
Ultimately the board decided to take no action on the six petitions with John Jensen, of Petersburg, and Jeffrey dissenting.
Chris Every, setnetter in the Kenai River area of the East Side Setnet fishery, said he felt the board made the right decision because there hadn't been enough time for the public or the process to vet the various proposals.
"You know a lot of petitions that were put in are by individuals that are concerned about their area," he said. "As the department's been telling us and trying to school us on how to go about this; we need to come to them with proposals that will involve the entire East Side setnet fishery. None of the proposals today, none of the seven were in that format."
Lance Alldrin, one of the petitioners on the original proposal said he withdrew his support based on that sentiment.
His proposal suggested opening the East Forelands setnet statistical area at the northern end of the Central District as it typically catches fewer kings than setnet areas to the south and could be a tool for harvesting sockeye.
Alldrin said he and his fellow petitioners decided setnetters needed to band together.
"The bigger picture was the well being of the industry here on the East Side," he said. "We went ahead and discussed it amongst ourselves and decided that instead of dividing and conquering we would just go ahead and work together."
Every said some of the questions posed by board of fisheries members showed an ignorance of the complexity of the issue in the Cook Inlet.
"You know they're looking at an entire state's issues and two or three of them are newer on the board so they've got to dig down and understand the fishery — which a couple of them did say — to make good decisions. So there needs to be more time. They did make the right decision. Even though I'd like to fish, it's late enough in the year that we might as well just tough it out."
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org