The group has changed names, expanded its mission and has members associated with another controversial sportfishing association but the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance has not deviated from its original goal — to shut down setnetting in the Cook Inlet.
The group filed a ballot initiative application Wednesday that seeks to ban setnetting in what it defines as “urban” parts of the state including the entire Cook Inlet, Valdez, Fairbanks, Juneau and Ketchikan.
Calling setnets “indiscriminate killers,” President Joe Connors said the organization’s goal was to have the initiative on the August 2016 primary ballot.
If the Department of Law determines the proposition to be legal, the group will have to gather more than 30,000 signatures to get the initiative onto a statewide ballot.
The fledgling organization counts among its backers, Bob Penney a powerful sportfishing advocate who holds considerable political sway in and is a founding member of another Cook Inlet organization — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
Other members include several current members of the KRSA including Kristin Mellinger, Joe Connors and volunteer Dennis Gease.
Connors, a retired University of Alaska Anchorage Professor and former West Side Cook Inlet Setnet fisherman who now runs a Kenai River lodge last fished a setnet in 1983 but during the five years he operated one he said he caught any number of ducks, birds, flounder, sharks and king salmon.
To that end, Connors said he wanted to see the setnet fishery shut down permanently in certain parts of the state.
This is not the first time this year that the six-month old organization has stepped in to keep setnetters out of the water.
In July, the group intervened in a lawsuit filed by the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, which requested more fishing time for setnetters and accused the department of reallocating harvest of the sockeye run to other users.
Then called the Kenai King Conservation Alliance, the group had a goal of conserving Kenai Kings, said Penney in an August interview.
Penney said the Cook Inlet run of sockeye salmon could be managed without the setnet fleet as indicated by the 2012 fishing season when setnetters were largely kept out of the water by Alaska Department of Fish and Game managers in response to low numbers of king salmon.
However Jeff Regnart, director of the commercial fisheries division of Fish and Game, said it would be difficult to manage the Cook Inlet sockeye run without the setnets as the fish don’t travel in the same part of the inlet from year to year and are sometimes too close to shore for the drift fleet to catch them.
Ken Tarbox, former Fish and Game research biologist said eliminating the drift fleet would never be able to keep up with the sockeye run without wiping out fish headed for the northern part of the district where several species of pacific salmon have failed to return in adequate numbers.
Local and statewide commercial fishing organizations have yet to officially respond to the proposal.
Julianne Curry, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, wrote in an email that the group was not ready to officially respond to the proposition.
UFA is a commercial fishing organization that represents 36 commercial fishing groups in Alaska.
“Folks are still looking over the initiative and analyzing,” Curry wrote.
The Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association, a group that represents primarily setnetters but includes other commercial fishermen in the Cook Inlet met Thursday to discuss the initiative.
President Robert Williams wrote in an email that the group would have a media release soon.
Tarbox said the culture of the Kenai Peninsula was such that user groups had tense relationships with one another as each tried to get a portion of the mixed-stock fishery.
“These are neighbors and friends and coworkers and I just think this is really sad for anybody even to be going down this path and putting the community through this because now it has come to this debate as to whether or not we want to have these people in our community because if we eliminate their livelihood they may leave,” Tarbox said.
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org