Since the newly formed Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance released its ballot initiative proposition to ban setnet fishing in areas of the state it defined as “urban,” several commercial organizations have met to plan strategy against the new attack.
While a large part of any planned strategic maneuvering includes waiting, another part includes picking apart portions of the AFCA’s initiative that commercial fishermen are calling “vague” and “misleading,”
One issue with the proposed initiative is that it would ban “shore gill net and set net fishing.”
“There is no such thing as a shore gillnet. There is no definition of a shore gillnet in Alaska state statute or regulation,” said Julianne Curry, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, a group that represents about 40 commercial fishing groups statewide.
“There’s no mention of salmon. It just says fish,” Curry said. “The initiative really isn’t specific enough for people to get a handle on ... I think the lack of definition for a shore gillnet has a lot of people concerned wondering if that means (drift) gillnets or if that’s an attempt to describe what a setnet is. We have a pretty extensive setnet fleet in the state of Alaska and an extremely extensive (drift) gillnet fleet.”
The lack of clarity in the proposed initiative has many user groups outside of the Cook Inlet concerned at the statewide implications were the proposal to make it onto the ballot, Curry said.
According to a Friday media release the Alaska Salmon Alliance — an organization representing seafood processors and commercial fishing on the Kenai Peninsula — called the proposition a political move that disregarded science, current fisheries management and the participation of all of the Cook Inlet user groups.
“I just think the whole measure is audacious,” said ASA executive director Arni Thomson. “He we are in the 21st century, a number of resource industries up here in Alaska are pulling together and having discussions about collaboration, working together politically at community, state and national levels to try to promote their industries. Here we were at the table — a collaborative table with a representative of the same organization and one week later they dropped a new ballot initiative that is essentially recommending to retire one whole key sector of the industry.”
The organization representative Thomson referred to is Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, another controversial sportfishing advocacy group.
Gease took part in an Anchorage Chamber of Commerce panel discussion with representatives from Cook Inlet organizations including the ASA two weeks ago.
While the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the AFCA share members, the two organizations are unaffiliated said Bob Penney, a longtime sportfishing advocate and controversial figure in the ongoing battle between the Cook Inlet’s competing fishing groups.
The AFCA — previously called the Kenai King Conservation Alliance — was originally formed with the goal of conserving Kenai king salmon, Penney said.
It has since expanded its stated goal to seeing the closure of setnetting in Anchorage and Cook Inlet Area, Fairbanks, Valdez, Ketchikan and Juneau.
“We’re looking at an all time low, scary low, astronomically low numbers of king salmon in Cook Inlet,” said Penney in an August interview. “Those numbers are so bad that we can’t take another year or two doing what we’ve been doing.”
Despite the well documented downturn in production of Kenai king salmon, Alaska Department of Fish and Game data shows the late run of Kenai River king salmon — the only run of king salmon commercial setnet fishermen currently fish — to have made its spawning escapement goal every year for almost 30 years.
Citing escapement goal statistics as well as the lack of proposed restrictions on sport fishermen who target king salmon, several commercial fishermen said they considered the ballot proposition an attempt to re-allocate salmon from commercial fishermen to sport fishermen.
“We’ll have 13 percent of our fish — if setnets don’t fish any longer — given to the sport fishery to make their fishery more lucrative,” said Robert Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association.
Williams, like many of the people KPFA represents, is a setnet fishermen.
“If the Kenai River late run king salmon was a stock of concern, I would be the first one to sit on the beach,” Williams said. “If we ever got to that point, I would have no problem. The fish come first.”
During an August interview, Penney said inriver sport fishermen are already restricted and represent a larger economic benefit to the Cook Inlet than commercial fishermen and therefore should have more access to any surplus of king salmon.
“Whatever it takes to guarantee the future of the runs comes first. Anything beyond that is subject to harvest by human beings. ... A harvestable surplus is a political decision made by people,” Penney said. “The highest economic return for the harvestable fish should be the first criteria to who catches it.”
Several studies have been done measuring the economic benefit of commercial and sportfishermen to the Cook Inlet — however the results of those studies have been argued and re-interpretated by both sport and commercial fishermen and it is unclear whether either user group provides more economic benefit.
Not every sport fisherman on the Kenai Peninsula supports efforts to rid the area of commercial setnet fishermen.
Dwight Kramer, head of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition — a sport fishing group — said in an email that he was discouraged by the proposal but not surprised by the authors, Penney and Connor.
“This isn’t about conservation, it’s about greed plain and simple,” Kramer wrote. “In recent years of king declines we have seen a refreshing spirit of cooperation between sport and commercial for the protection of the resource, both willing to accept restrictions for a common resource goal.”
Kramer wrote that he thought the proposition to eliminate a gear group would ruin the recent spirit of compromise.
“Who could ever trust a neighbor who wants to profit at your demise,” Kramer wrote. “Everyone affiliated with this initiative should be ashamed and treated with distrust. Our community, and society as a whole should find this type of allocative maneuvering unacceptable and hold those involved accountable for the divisiveness and distraught they have brought on our area.”
Kramer wrote that the lack of calls for restricting fishing for king salmon on the early run was an indication that conservation of the fish was not the first priority of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance.
The AFCA does not intend to bring its initiative — if it is determined to be legal —to the ballot until 2016, said president Joe Connors.
In the meantime, members will cross the state raising funds — Penney said in an August interview the group was primarily funded with a personal loan from him — and educating the public about its cause, Connor said.
Despite the wait, the political and economic weight members of the group carry have many in the setnet community uncomfortable with waiting to see how popular opinion of the initiative will pan out.
“Do we spend a bunch of time and resources combatting something that may not even be legal?” Williams said. “The courts could defeat it before it even goes to the ballot.”
But, the measure still makes him uncomfortable.
“I feel threatened. There’s a few people among us that definitely feel threatened and want us to be a little more proactive,” he said. “Not quite sure what that would be but this is a threat. It’s definitely a threat.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at firstname.lastname@example.org