Anyone who cares about area fisheries has an excellent opportunity to speak out today and Saturday at the Soldotna Sports Center conference room. The Alaska Board of Fisheries is holding a public hearing beginning at 1:30 p.m. today and 8:30 a.m. Saturday to gather information and comments on proposals to be addressed by the board at its upper Cook Inlet finfish regulatory meeting, which begins Monday and runs through Jan. 29.
Ideally, the board would hold its entire meeting in the central Kenai Peninsula. While it may be less expensive and more convenient for board members to meet in Anchorage, the fact remains the board is making decisions that have the power to shape both the livelihoods and lifestyles of all central peninsula residents, even those who don't care a hoot about fishing.
Yes, the fish belong to all the people. Yes, people from all over the state - indeed, all over the world - come here to fish. But it is the people who live and work here 365 days a year who have the most to gain or lose from the board's decisions. It is out of respect for the impact of their decisions that board members should have their full meeting in the central peninsula - regardless of how expensive or inconvenient it may be.
Having said that, however, it's appreciated that the board is making an effort to hear from residents without residents having to travel to Anchorage, and it's appreciated that a written report of the Soldotna hearing will be provided to the full board.
The board needs to hear these messages from the central peninsula:
Residents want to do whatever it takes to preserve healthy fisheries - personal use, commercial and sport.
All fisheries are important to the economy and lifestyle of the peninsula.
Residents want to know that fisheries are based on sound biology not the political whims of the day.
Residents don't want wealthy visitors to have more access to the fisheries than they do.
In a perfect world, the board would hear a unified voice from residents on how best to do all the above. Alas, it's not a perfect world. The board will consider 188 pages of scores of proposals submitted on upper inlet finfish issues - and many of them are competing proposals.
As fisheries writer Cristy Fry of Homer recently noted: "Several proposals by commercial fishermen are aimed at increasing the commercial harvest of Kenai River coho, and several submitted by sport fishermen seek to decrease the same harvest."
In other words, there's the potential for the same old allocation arguments to take center stage and color the entire hearing.
What the Soldotna meeting should not turn into is some ugly fish fight. Like it or not, those involved in area fishing groups have a reputation for not getting along with one another. Instead of focusing on competing interests, those groups need to start working from some common ground.
And, believe it or not, they have a lot to unite them, and it's primarily this: If we don't take care of the habitat that nourishes the abundant fisheries that sustain and feed our economy and our lifestyles, there will be no fish to fight over.
It's that simple.
The Board of Fisheries has a huge job. It's in the best interest of central peninsula residents to help the board do its job well by not accusing them of dirty tricks, by providing them with accurate information and by showing them that healthy fisheries not only fill our dinner plates, but they also nourish our souls.
While the board in the future needs to reconsider its decision to meet in Anchorage when it considers upper inlet issues, our hope is it will find a warm welcome - and a united voice - when it hears from residents today and Saturday.
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