It has been a rough couple of years for Cook Inlet fishermen.
The Kenai River guide industry has been dealt a crippling blow by the ongoing decline in returning king salmon that is deterring visitors from coming to the area for a chance at the famed fish.
The commercial setnet fishermen have been pulled out of the water and left dry so many times that it’s a wonder many of them are still in business.
Personal-use dipnet fishermen find themselves buffeted on all sides by commercial and sport fishermen angry at the intrusion and fish allocation to the relatively new user group.
Drift fishermen find themselves increasingly less effective at chasing and catching sockeye as they’re confined to restrictive corridors by managers attempting to allow fish into the northern part of the Cook Inlet where sport anglers have been railing for years about the declining returns of salmon and pointing the blame at the drift fleet.
Even the educational setnet permit holders, who represent a small fraction of the overall harvest of fish in the Cook Inlet, have seen their allowable harvest reduced in the interest of conserving king salmon.
The infighting and backbiting among user groups has been vicious, disheartening and exhausting for all involved and spawned volumes of rhetoric on the area’s “Fish Wars.”
Despite all of the vitriol, no one user group has managed to eliminate the other, though we’re sure most of them have tried. In fact, many commercial and sport fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula have publicly supported one another in the quest to find out why the king salmon runs are struggling.
But that may change now that a judge has overturned the state’s rejection of a proposed ballot initiative to ban commercial setnets in the Cook Inlet and elsewhere in the state.
The initiative was filed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, a relatively new group formed by several members of another prominent sportfishing advocacy group — the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
It would allow voters to decide at the ballot box whether to ban setnets — rather than allowing the state’s Board of Fisheries to continue to regulate gear and allocation between user groups. This initiative is a vote of “no confidence” in the state’s ability to manage its fisheries.
In fact, regulatory steps the Board has taken, including further restrictions to corridors for drift fishermen, and shallowed gear for setnet fishermen resulted in Kenai-area setnetters to get just three openings in July — all in the name of salmon conservation. In short, the board is already addressing the concerns motivating the people pushing the setnet ban.
In the minefield that is Cook Inlet fisheries management and regulation, this initiative could set off an explosive reaction.
Up until now, the Board of Fisheries has been tasked with regulating fisheries in the state and its members have been equipped with the knowledge to do so by their experience and the research and hard work of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
A ballot initiative to ban a gear type has the potential to allow hundreds of thousands of Alaskans from outside the Kenai Peninsula to decide the future of the commercial setnet industry that generates millions in revenue for our local economy.
If the initiative is successful, it paves the way for fishing regulations to be decided at the ballot box and bypasses the Board of Fisheries’ process and purpose for existence.
It is a dangerous precedent to set and while we believe that evolving fisheries require fishermen who are willing to adapt, the regulation of a multi-billion dollar industry and the state’s No. 1 private sector employer through the ballot box is not the way to ensure that the state’s fisheries are prosecuted safely, fairly and with the upmost regard for the resource.
In fact, ballot-box fisheries regulation seems like a surefire way to ensure that the Fish Wars continue for years to come.