Hearing in Cook Inlet fishing lawsuit set for July 30

An Anchorage judge will hear Cook Inlet fishermen’s request for additional fishing time July 30.

The Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund, or CIFF, filed a lawsuit against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game July 15, asking that a court require the Department to provide setnetters with additional fishing time.

CIFF and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game will each have the opportunity to state their case in a July 30 hearing.

Judge Andrew Guidi scheduled the July 30 evidentiary hearing and oral argument after asking the parties about the information and discussion they thought was necessary during Tuesday’s status hearing.

Attorney Leslie Need said CIFF planned to have at least three witnesses.

State of Alaska attorney Lance Nelson told the judge that Fish and Game would like to continue updating the courts on its management. In the middle of the fishing season, management can change regularly, he said.

Guidi told both sides to exchange their witness lists by the end of business on Thursday, and exchange exhibits by the end of the day Friday.

CIFF has said that given the strong sockeye runs, Fish and Game should provide more opportunity for setnetters to fish.

As of Monday, a little more than one million sockeyes had passed the sonar on the Kenai River. The sustainable escapement goal for the run is 700,000 to 1.2 million fish. Not all of the fish that have passed the sonar so far are included in determining whether or not the goal has been met, as there is harvest upriver of the sonar.

Unlike last summer, when low king counts lead to severely limited fishing time for setnetters, they have fished most of their regular periods this year, and had some additional time. But they haven’t received the full 51 extra hours that the management plan says is a possibility in times of sockeye abundance.

On Tuesday, Fish and Game also announced that it would close certain areas to setnetters to protect Kenai kings during the regularly scheduled Thursday period.

Affadavits from setnetters talk about the financial loss of forgone fishing time, and also note that the drift fleet has been used to fish closer in to the beach, where setnet sites are based.

The lawsuit accuses Fish and Game of reallocating fish from setnetters to other users because setnet fishermen have not received the maximum possible fishing opportunity.

The drift fleet has received some additional harvest opportunity.

Fish and Game has weighed concerns for king salmon returns in deciding how much fishing time to allow.

On Tuesday, Fish and Game announced that it was limiting king fishing to catch-and-release and trophy fishing only to help meet escapement goals, and then limited Kenai setnetters as well.

As of Monday, about 8,291 kings were counted on the Kenai, fewer than had returned by the same date in 2012. But, the 2012 run was late — about a third of the run showed up after August 1 — and that could be a possibility this year.

In Tuesday’s announcements, Fish and Game stated that at current harvest rates, the king run was not projected to meet its sustainable escapement goal.

Personal-use fishermen on the Kenai also are not allowed to retain kings caught while targeting sockeyes, although the personal-use fishery has been otherwise liberalized. Fish and Game has also announced that the Kenai personal-use fishery would be open 24 hours per day.

The Kenai King Conservation Alliance has also asked to intervene in the suit.

The nonprofit, which is registered in Anchorage, would participate on Fish and Game’s side of the case, said lawyer Sherman Ernouf during the Tuesday status hearing.

Guidi said that if the alliance, or KKCA, is allowed to participate, it would share the time allotted to the state for its defense.

CIFF’s response to KKCA’s request to participate was not filed as of press time. The king alliance was formed in May. Its mission is to preserve and protect Kenai River king salmon.

“I want my grandkids to have the chance to catch (kings),” said founder Bob Penney. “If we don’t protect them, they’ll be gone.”

Penney and five other longtime Alaskans founded the organization after the Board of Fisheries chose not to enact additional protections for Kenai River kings at its March 2013 statewide meeting, Penney said.

If the organization is allowed to participate in the lawsuit, Ernouf said it will be making the point that no one should be fishing.

“There’s hardly any kings left,” Ernouf said.

Penney, Mark Hamilton and Dennis Mellinger are registered as the nonprofit’s directors in its filing with the State of Alaska.

The organization has also filed for federal nonprofit status, but that is pending. Ernouf said that the alliance was formed to represent king salmon’s interests. The founders were avid fishermen, and noticed the declining king resource in the last three to five years. While there are several groups speaking on behalf of fishermen, there was “no one advocating for the fish itself,” Ernouf said.

Penney and Hamilton both listed Anchorage residences in incorporation documents for the nonprofit, but they also have homes on the Kenai and are members of Kenai River Sportfishing Association’s board of directors. Penney is also a KRSA founder.

This isn’t the first time commercial fishermen have asked the court to make in-season management changes. In July 2011, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, Copper River Seafoods and three individual fishermen filed suit against Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries over an emergency regulation that limited fishing for the drift fleet.

Judge Guidi heard that case, and quickly ruled in the commercial fishermen’s favor. His ruling said the state did not have the necessary emergency basis to enact the late regulations limiting the fleet, and invalidated those regulations.

In the case, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association participated as an intervenor.

The July 30 hearing is set for 8:30 a.m. in Anchorage’s Nesbett Courthouse, although the state has filed a petition regarding the location, which has not yet been addressed.

Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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