Gov. Sean Parnell said his fiscal year 2014 budget would include $10 million as a “down payment” on a $30 million, five-year comprehensive Chinook Salmon Research Initiative during a Tuesday community meet and greet in Kenai.
Parnell, along with Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell spent more than an hour at the Kenai Visitors and Cultural Center answering a range of questions about the 2012 fishing season, changes in fisheries management and addressing user group frustration about how fish have been allocated.
“I take very seriously your business, your livelihood and how you — as a people — are impacted by a diminishing resource like our chinook salmon,” Parnell said before he asked for questions from a crowd of about 70 people.
The first question was from a man who said he wanted to know where the governor stood in relation to the fishery and why politics seemed to play such a huge role in managing Cook Inlet fish.
Parnell said last season tested his resolve.
“It was very hard for me to stand by while the fisheries — while what happened to the fisheries — happened this year because I made a pledge to all of you as your governor that I would not make political calls on the fishery and that’s one of the toughest things to stand by in that kind of setting when your families are suffering from lost fish,” he said.
His responsibility, Parnell said, was to make sure Fish and Game was “responsible and responsive” to the public and acting within the law.
“We can always improve,” he said.
The next question was if Parnell would intervene if user groups were kept out of the water during the next king salmon fishing season.
“I will work to make sure that the system works better to bring back those fish and bring back more of them,” he said. “If you’re asking if I will intervene politically to favor one group over another, I will not, but I will work to sustain your livelihoods by sustaining that run of fish.”
Doug Blossom, a setnetter, told Parnell he hoped some of the money being requested would go toward fishery rehabilitation rather than more research about the salmon life cycle.
“Studying won’t do any good,” Blossom said. “Before you get through studying they’ll all be dead and gone; if you rehab it I’ll be able to watch my grandkids catch fish.”
During a meeting with the Clarion after the afternoon reception, Parnell and Campbell said the money would be allocated according to an analysis Fish and Game conducted earlier this year that identified gaps in the department’s knowledge about the salmon life cycle.
That gap analysis is set to be released in mid-December and Campbell said it would be a blueprint for how the $30 million would be spent over the next five years.
The Kenai River is one of 12 king salmon-bearing rivers across the state Fish and Game plans to research and use as “indicator stocks” according to the gap analysis. Projects such as the sonar site relocation on the Kenai River were included in the gap analysis and would receive further funding through the Chinook Salmon Research Initiative.
Paul Shadura, setnetter and a director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, told Parnell that the $10 million funding request was a “strong start” but encouraged the governor to pursue a comanagement system in the Cook Inlet which would allow users to have more of a say in decisions made by Fish and Game.
“I think a lot of the situations could maybe be minimalized ... if we had that degree of response with the department in-season,” Shadura said.
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he hoped the managers would consider outsourcing some of its research.
Department researchers sometimes have a “learning curve” with new technology that takes years to overcome, he said.
“I would encourage other departments — when there are opportunities to outsource to people who are very knowledgeable in this technology — that that’s considered,” Gease said.
Mark Ducker, a commercial fisherman, became visibly agitated as he spoke to Parnell about what he said was a lack of timely information coming out of the sport fishery.
“It’s pretty ridiculous, we’re spending all this money and the best data we’ve got is six years old,” Ducker said.
He said he had been requesting data on creel surveys and sport catch on Kenai River king salmon since August and had been rebuffed by Fish and Game.
“They basically told me it’d cost me $2,500 to get this information,” Ducker said. “Why do I need to pay for information that should be available to the public? Why is the Cook Inlet so damn difficult?”
Not everyone who spoke had negative things to say about fisheries management or suggestions about how things could be better managed. Gary Fandrei, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, told the crowd he appreciated the governor’s efforts to fund fisheries by helping to rebuild hatcheries across the state.
“I don’t think everybody recognizes that, so I was hoping to at least make a point that he’s not new to the game, he’s been around for a little while and he’s aware of what’s going on,” Fandrei said after the meeting.
Parnell closed the question and answer session after Fandrei spoke by saying that he appreciated people coming out in the middle of the day to share their concerns.
“You do have an administration that cares deeply about what happens to you and will work deeply to see (fishermen) through,” Parnell said.
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.