Emotions ran high during a Friday town meeting at the Peninsula Grace Brethren Church in Soldotna where fishermen gathered to talk about economic disaster relief and hear Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers discuss the disastrous 2012 fishing season.
The meeting was broken into two parts and brought more than 100 fisherman during the first half, which dealt with economic relief questions. The crowd swelled to more than 140 when Fish and Game’s Commissioner Cora Campbell, commercial fishing division director Jeff Regnart and sport fishing division director Charlie Swanton took the stage to answer questions about their management of the 2012 fishing season.
During the meeting, managers discussed several often-repeated questions about the establishment of a new DIDSON-based in-river goal for the Kenai River, the weight of their in-season management decisions and how much authority the commissioner had to override the Board of Fish.
Economic relief questions
A loud, persistent buzz coupled with a low tone of feedback from the PA system threatened to drown out audience members each time they asked a question of the representatives from the governor’s office, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the state’s department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development. Ironically, feedback was the topic of many of the questions as fishermen repeatedly said the state and federal government didn’t seem hear local voices as it considered how best to respond to the federal disaster declaration in the Cook Inlet.
A $10.9 million estimate of economic loss to the east side setnet fishery, used to justify the need for a disaster declaration in Gov. Sean Parnell’s August request for aid, was a point of contention.
“He came out with a $10 million estimate of the disaster. You’re talking about a 50-75 million dollar project here; 449 setnet permit holders,” said Richard McGahan “I mean -— 10 million dollars — that just goes to show how far he is removed from what’s going on. We sent 20 emails to the governor’s office with no answer. The commissioner won’t answer anything. So that’s why we’re sitting here, because we can’t get any cooperation.”
Susan Bell, commissioner of the state’s department of commerce, said she understood the concern over the figure but that people needed to understand it was an initial estimate to help people understand the scale of the disaster.
“I think it’s important that (the) $10 million estimate came from that first look and we’re in the process of looking now at all of the facts,” she said. “But, we needed to put the data in the governor’s request in order to get to this step.”
Moderator and local setnetter Jim Butler said it was incumbent upon local fishermen to cooperate with each of the agencies helping the state’s congressional delegation with its appropriation request from Congress to ensure the final figure was accurate.
“I’ve been involved in a lot of different disasters in different parts of the country and Alaska. I’ve never seen the first number be the number. It’s a placeholder. It’s to get someone’s attention, to say, ‘We’ve got a big problem up here,’ now let’s start scrutinizing it,” Butler said. “The more prepared the fishermen can help these agencies become, the higher the success. I don’t think anyone should be locked into the first number. But, as you go up with the number it’s critical ... if you start putting numbers out there that aren’t credible; you’ve got a big problem.”
Fishermen were asked to fill out an estimated disaster economic injury worksheet to help the Department of Commerce better understand the scale of the disaster in the Cook Inlet.
Some asked about compensation to their crews, employees of fish-buying stations and other people who draw income from the fishing industry despite not being permit holders.
Brennan J. Norden, of Kasilof, however, wanted to know about sport fishing and a separation of remuneration between fishermen on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.
“You have the Kenai River Guide Association ... but you do have a small group of people, like myself, that don’t belong to the guide association and I want to make sure our voice is heard in the state because we do bring a big chunk of money to the Kasilof and the money stays in Kasilof,” he said. “I know there aren’t a lot of sport fishermen in here right now but I just want to make sure that there is someone maybe representing the Kasilof River too because that’s a very important fishery.”
While the disaster declaration under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Management and Conservation Act only covered the commercial fishery failure, speakers said there was a possibility a congressional appropriation of funds could also include money for sport fishermen and others in the industry.
The governor’s disaster declaration request included a reference to the king salmon sport fishery as being one of the principal economic drivers for the regional economy. Speakers said that data could be used to help craft the state’s request for aid.
Fish and Game answers management questions
Mitzi Blossom, along with everyone else in the room, heard Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Mike Navarre as he exhorted audience members to remain calm during the discussion.
But, despite the tremble and occasional break in her voice she grew louder until she was nearly shouting at Campbell, Regnart and Swanton as she described her setnet season.
“I fish down in Ninilchik, can’t even see the Kenai River but you shut me down this summer and wouldn’t let us harvest reds,” she said. “Then along came this beautiful, beautiful run of pink salmon. We called. ‘Hey, we’re willing to harvest them.’ Now tell me why we couldn’t harvest them? We were willing to fish for .35 cents a pound ... Why are you doing this to us? I don’t understand. I do not understand why you’re taking it out on us.”
Blossom said she spent $11,000 to $13,000 a year between June and August and had been fishing in the inlet for several decades.
“So I don’t think that it’s just the tourists bringing in money that time of year,” she said. “I’ve been a setnetter since 1960, our family fish site is now five generations (old). We’ve given up so much of our fishing time. Your early run is in trouble, we haven’t fished the early run since about 1964 and yet the setnetters get blamed for everything.”
Campbell said people should not interpret management restrictions as blame.
“It’s really important to understand that when we have a really low abundance of a stock, everybody that harvests that stock may be asked to take restrictions but I think that’s really different than saying that somebody is to blame for a decline,” she said.
Several people called into the question the nature of the commissioner’s authority relative to the Board of Fish’s management plans and Campbell said she heard that question regularly in-season as well.
“There is a provision in the management plan that was invoked this summer that had never been invoked before, that is actually a very blunt tool ... if the in-river fishery closes the setnet fishery closes,” she said. “Then the question that came up is, in some situations the commissioner has the authority to do something other than what was directed by the board. What would those circumstances be?”
Campbell said in order to go outside of the management plan she would have to have new information not known by the board when it established the management plan and there would have to be a compelling reason for her to exercise her emergency order authority to override a provision of the plan.
The description of a provision of the Kenai River management plan which closes the east side setnet fishery when the in-river sport fishery is closed as a blunt tool was revisited several times.
When asked if he felt the management plan was effective in achieving its goals, Regnart said he believed it did, although not without consequences.
“Everybody here in this room felt the weight of that plan this year,” he said. “It’ll get the job done, but it does it in a way that users can pay a very high price.”
The audience was told if Fish and Game’s agenda change request was approved during the Board of Fish’s two-day October meeting, they could expect the department would have a new goal by January, which would be released to the public by February.
An audience member asked how the department would determine its new inriver goal and whether fishermen could have some idea of what that goal would be so they could make decisions about the next season.
“I think it would be wrong of me to turn around and try to speculate as to what that final number would be,” Swanton said.
Swanton apologized to the crowd for not having anything more substantive but said that given the magnitude of what happened during the last fishing season he would rather wait until the department had analyzed all of its data.
Robin Nyce, who setnets on Salamatof Beach, asked Regnart if the department felt responsible for how poorly the season went for local fishermen.
“Do you feel you could have been better at mitigating, before the season, the disaster that was expected? My husband and I spent about $15,000, which we didn’t need to spend this year,” Nyce said. “Do you believe that there is, at some point, an understanding on your part that these are a bunch of small businesses making financial decisions before the season? We would never have spent that if we had any idea the season was going to go the way it has.”
Regnart said the department had the responsibility to put out the best forecast it could.
“My hope is that in most cases it works, some cases it doesn’t and this is an example,” he said. “We will continue to try to get better at forecasting, try to put the tools we currently have to even better use ... I can’t tell you today that it wouldn’t happen again in the future. Somewhere in the state we will miss a forecast and there will be a cost paid by the users, that will happen.”
This article has been edited to reflect the correct spelling of Robin Nyce's name.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org