Editor's note: This article has been revised to add a word missing from Ricky Gease's last quote about the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association's policy on taking stand's on ballot issues.
More than 130 people had lunch together at the Kenai Chamber of Commerce and Visitors Center where a panel of representatives from many of the fishing groups in the Cook Inlet answered questions on the ongoing conflict over fishing.
Six panelists answered prepared questions about the history of the fishery, problems with management and potential solutions to coping with the decline in king salmon.
The first question asked of the panelists, many of whom are fishermen in the area, was how changes in participation in Cook Inlet fisheries had affected user groups.
Jim Butler, a commercial setnet fishermen and representative of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said commercial fishing had been limited, but other types of fishing had not.
“(Commercial) fisheries became limited entry in the mid-70s and as a result of that, it limited the number of people who could actually participate in our fisheries,” he said. “But no such limits exist in the river although it’s a much smaller space.”
Paul Dale, owner of Snug Harbor Seafoods and representative from the Alaska Salmon Alliance, said the commercial seafood industry had gotten better over the last few years.
“We went through a rough period of low prices and consequent business consolidation ... now markets are more varied than they used to be, all of the local seafood companies are now doing a great deal of business out of the Prince William Sound and the Gulf of Alaska,” he said.
Josh Hayes, a representative from the Kenai River Professional Guide Association said business had not been going well for guides.
Angler effort on the Kenai River is 70 percent of what it was in 2007 and 111 guide services have closed since that time, he said.
When asked about problems that detract from management in the Upper Cook Inlet fisheries, several spoke of ongoing conflict between fishing groups.
“I would say without a doubt, it’s the heightened conflict, the so-called ‘Fish Wars.’ It’s in our way,” Dale said. “It fouls research priorities, it fouls managers’ ability to do the best they can in a difficult situation. It’s out of control. I feel as though I have been participating in a relatively broken process and it is becoming more apparent that as the margins get slimmer that we need to do this job better.”
The group was asked to discuss how growth in area fisheries is affecting existing user groups.
Some spoke of the fisheries being “fully allocated” meaning that any fish stocks that are available have already been designated for a percentage of use between the sport, personal use and commercial fisheries.
If any one group continues to grow and harvest more fish, it would be taking fish away from another user group.
“I think the thing that we’re always challenged to do is to realize that one of those allocations is the fish themselves,” said Ricky Gease, executive director and representative of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. “We need to meet minimum escapements and that is the overall challenge that I see ... is to manage expectations and to say, in times of low abundance for whatever fish it is, it is our responsibility to slow down our harvest.”
The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, a group that gained recent notoriety with a proposed statewide initiative to ban setnetting, declined to attend the meeting — the group held a press conference in Anchorage Wednesday to announce an appeal on its initiative which was rejected by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell in early January.
While no AFCA members were in attendance at the fisheries panel, the group, its mission and the initiative were mentioned several times by local fishermen.
Kramer said the initiative detracted from recent efforts at cooperation between commercial, sport and personal use fishing interests.
“This is more of an allocation advantage ... (it) had nothing to do with conservation,” he said. “More importantly it crossed a line that made it more difficult to foster a level of cooperation and respect so we can all get together and resolve fishery issues.”
The last question to panel members was about what they would do if afforded the status of “king for the day” and could use their power to change one thing in the Cook Inlet fisheries to resolve some of the longstanding issues.
Dale said if he were king he would want to see Gease “decide to use his considerable political influence and the strength of his organization to put an end to the setnetter ban which would immediately foreclose investments and jobs to 500 or more local families. It will put them out of business, it will destroy these people financially, it is not rooted at all in sustainability or conservation.”
Butler said if he were king he would dismiss the initiative “with prejudice.”
After the meeting, Gease said he had no sway over the AFCA or its initiative in his capacity at the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
“It is not our initiative, we are independent of each other,” Gease said.
Gease, and other members of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association did sign on as sponsors of the petition, according to the initiative documentation filed with the Lieutentant Governor’s office, however Gease said he did so as a way to support the initiative getting onto the ballot and not necessarily in support of its mission to ban setnetting in the Cook Inlet.
The signature was also not meant to represent the views of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, he said.
“(The Kenai River Sportfishing Association) has a longstanding policy of not taking public stances on ballot issues,” he said.
After the panel finished answer its questions, U.S. Senator Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, commended the group on their willingness to talk to one another. In her experience, she said, competing user groups in other parts of the state are less willing to communicate with one another.
“Typically they would choose to just bury it and not talk about it publicly and the fighting continues and it becomes more difficult,” she said. “So you’ve taken the first step today in a very public forum.”
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.