The needs of Kenai Peninsula residents would come first in what a new coalition bills as a plan to take the politics out of Cook Inlet fishery management.
"We promote sound biological management, utilizing the best scientific data available," said Debra Holle, a former commercial fisher who chairs the new Kenai Peninsula Resource Management Coalition.
"We want to get past the bothersome boards and political influences. We're trying to show the peninsula and the state that we know what to do to protect the resource for the people that live here."
A mission statement the coalition approved in December would make subsistence the top priority for Kenai Peninsula fish and wildlife. Commercial fishing would come second, followed by recreational fishing.
"In years of low abundance, all local recreational users shall have a priority use over nonresident recreational users," the mission statement says.
Coalition members voiced differing opinions on whether the priority in times of scarcity would mean Kenai Peninsula residents before anglers from elsewhere, or Alaska residents before anglers from Outside.
Joe Connors, president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, said the Legislature will laugh at the plan.
"It's absurd. It's just another power grab, probably by commercial fishermen, because they're getting a lot more than they have now," he said. "It's certainly anti-nonresident. Is that what people here really want to do? What about all those bed-and-breakfasts? What about all those stores that depend on business from guided and nonguided fishermen that come down here?"
The mission statement designates the spring and late summer salmon fisheries primarily for subsistence. It designates June 20 through Aug. 31, the peak of the upper inlet sockeye run, as the commercial fishing season, with management to maximize production for an economically viable industry.
It allows for recreational fishing throughout the year, with the Department of Fish and Game setting quotas and seasons area by area.
"Once we sign off on the plan, we introduce it to the Legislature," said commercial fishing advocate Joe Malatesta, a member of the coalition.
"We say, 'We have what we feel will help the state to solve its subsistence, recreational fishing and commercial fishing problems throughout the state.'"
Coalition member Mark Powell, who owns a Nikiski fish processing business, said the coalition is a broad-based group concerned with the way Cook Inlet fisheries have been managed and economic difficulties in the commercial fishing industry. Politics, not biology, now dominate Cook Inlet fishery management, he said.
"Commercial fishing had a priority until just a couple of years ago, when the Board of Fisheries removed it. When commercial fishing had a priority and we managed for maximum sustained yield, we had runs of 6 million to 9 million (sockeyes) and enough fish for everybody," he said. "Management decisions over the last several years have depleted the runs to where there aren't enough fish for commercial fishing to be viable or for the tourism industry."
The coalition includes recreational users, he said.
"Our intent is in no way to restrict the recreational user," he said. "Only in time of diminished runs will the nonresident user be restricted before the resident user."
Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Jack Brown of Nikiski said he organized the coalition last spring out of frustration with the politics of the Board of Fisheries.
"I understand that there are people that are going to paint it as for-commercial fishing," he said.
However, commercial fishers comprise only a quarter of the coalition's two dozen members, he said. Recreational fishers, Alaska Natives and subsistence users each comprise a quarter. Any action requires approval from three-quarters of the members, he said, so no one interest can dominate.
Brown said the coalition has publicized its meetings over local radio stations, and anyone is welcome to attend. However, he acknowledged that sport fishing guides have shown little interest.
"I think that's because their perception is, they have the political muscle. They have the Board of Fisheries controlled right now, and they don't need anyone else."
Connors said he never heard anything about the coalition's meetings.
"Nobody invited me, and I've been president of the guides association for three years," he said. "As a guide, I have a commercial interest. Where does guiding fit in there? It's not sport fishing. I bet it isn't in there."
While commercial fishers complain about Board of Fisheries restrictions, he said, guides have taken hits, too.
"They took the fifth seat out of our boats in July. If you have five seats, that's 20 percent," he said.
Malatesta said subsistence and commercial fishing have gone hand-in-hand since before statehood.
"The guiding industry is new to Alaska and rapidly expanding," he said. "There are more guides than there are resources."
Preserving the resource is the coalition's top priority, he said.
Soldotna sport fisher Roland Cusson said he is distressed at the constant battles over Cook Inlet salmon.
"Everyone is tugging at these fish, and the fish are the ones that are going to suffer," he said.
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