In recent years, it has become increasingly obvious that providing Alaskans with a means of putting nutritious food on their tables — we’re talking salmon — is not only a noble idea, but a popular one. Given that, consider this: Should personal-use fishing, such as that which occurs near the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, have a priority over commercial and sport fishing?
It could happen. Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, has pre-filed House Bill 18 in the legislature, due to convene next week in Juneau. The bill’s title says it all: “An Act providing priority to personal use fisheries when fishing restrictions are implemented to achieve a management goal.”
Under the new law, subsistence fishing would remain the first priority, as it currently is in state law.
A personal-use priority would apply to fisheries all over the state, but let’s take the Kenai River as an example. The Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan and the Kenai River Late-Run King Salmon Management Plan both include management goals. When numbers of late-run kings or sockeyes don’t meet those goals, one or more fisheries are restricted to ensure adequate spawning escapement. If personal-use fishing were to have priority, commercial and sport fisheries would have to be restricted before the Kenai dipnet fishery could be restricted.
This isn’t the first time Stoltze has floated this idea. In 2010, his HB 266 was similar. In his sponsor’s statement for that bill, Stoltze said, “… one thing all Alaskans can agree on is that we should have a priority over people coming from elsewhere in the country and the world to utilize and harvest our fisheries resources.”
The board of the Chitina Dipnetters Association unanimously supported HB 266. Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, also supported it, saying it would elevate personal-use fishing to the level of state subsistence fishing.
Most opposition to HB 266 came from commercial gillnetters who fish for salmon off the mouth of the Copper River, near Cordova. In an e-mail to the House Fisheries Committee, Wasilla resident Fred Deiser wrote: “I would ask you to acknowledge the large investment and economic importance to the State of Alaska of the Copper river commercial red salmon fishery. Fishers have worked my entire 35+ year fishing career improving quality and marketing what I believe is the best food source on the planet. Any reallocation of early run Copper river red salmon puts all this work at risk and threatens 500 Alaskan businesses.”
With most legislators leery of touching such a hot potato, HB 266 never made it out of committee. However, thanks to a recent court decision, this year might be different. Enter the Chitina dipnetters — again, and more so.
A few years back, the Alaska Board of Fisheries changed the Chitina dipnet fishery on the Copper River from a subsistence fishery to a personal-use fishery. Being “subsistence” gave the dipnetters priority over commercial fishermen fishing off the mouth of the Copper. Being “personal-use,” they had no preference. In a bid to get the subsistence classification back, the Chitina Dipnetters Association and the Alaska Fish & Wildlife Conservation Fund, a sister organization of the Alaska Outdoor Council, took the state to court. They lost. They appealed the decision to the Alaska Supreme Court. In December, they were informed that they had lost again.
Having exhausted their legal options, they’ll likely see HB 18 as a chance to gain back some of the leverage they had under the “subsistence” classification.
Other supporters of HB 18 will no doubt include the Alaska Outdoor Council, a large organization with a record of being influential with legislators.
How will anglers who prefer to catch their sockeyes with rod and reel feel about dipnetters having a priority over them? How might fishery management decisions be affected if this bill passes? Will supporters of personal-use fishing overcome the reluctance of legislators to jump into the fish-allocation fray?
I don’t know. What I do know is that the last time the Board of Fisheries addressed Upper Cook Inlet fin-fish proposals, at its Feb.-Mar 2011 meeting, they looked at 28 proposals to limit or restrict personal-use fishing.
Despite this showing of opposition to personal-use fishing, the board rejected all 28 of those proposals, leaving personal-use fishing unscathed.
Whether or not HB 18 survives and becomes law, the discussions about it are certain to be many and spirited.
Les Palmer can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.