Board of Fisheries meeting ongoing in Anchorage

Posted: Monday, January 15, 2001

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- The Alaskan Board of Fisheries meeting is underway at a downtown hotel where some of the state's toughest fish fights are expected to take place over the next three weeks.

The board and 14 subcommittees will me meeting seven days a week to consider 278 proposals and 11 ''action plans.''

Among the biggest issues is whether the opening of the commercial sockeye fishery at the mouth of the Copper River should be postponed so that more fish can swim upstream for dipnetters.

Fishermen and business owners from Cordova say the proposal could snuff their town and the shining star of Alaska's commercial salmon fisheries.

Several proposals would reduce or even kill salmon fishing at False Pass at the end of the Alaska Peninsula. The area is rich with ocean-bright salmon.

Fishing interests to the north and east have long resented the commercial fleet for ''intercepting'' fish migrating to rivers in other parts of the state. Gov. Tony Knowles has said some changes might be needed to protect disastrously low chum runs in Western Alaska.

Ordinarily, Fish Board meetings are much shorter and are scattered around the state to towns like Dillingham, Bethel and Sitka. But last year state lawmakers who felt the board was meeting too often and for too long slashed its budget by 20 percent, about $82,000. The board tightened its belt by rolling three meetings into one big Anchorage meeting.

Robin Samuelson of Dillingham is representing Bristol Bay fishermen and villagers who think the False Pass fleet is picking off too many sockeye salmon, contributing to unexpected run failures on the bay's Kvichak River, one of the world's most prolific sockeye producers.

Samuelson said his group will drop $20,000 on this meeting and has retained an ace consultant, Charles Meacham, a retired deputy commissioner with the state Department of Fish and Game.

The False Pass fleet and its supporters have been running a TV ad for weeks and has a small army of lobbyists, fishermen and mayors in town to fight for what they say is the very survival of their Aleut villages, including King Cove, Sand Point, Akutan, Cold Bay, False Pass and Nelson Lagoon.

''I'm nervous as hell,'' said King Cove fisherman Grant Newton.

Lately, chum salmon runs have been too small to sustain subsistence and small commercial fishermen on the Kuskokwim River. The governor has declared salmon disasters in Western Alaska in recent years, triggering millions of dollars in relief spending.

Upstream dipnetters on the Copper River have proposed banning any commercial fishing in the month of May until at least 100,000 salmon cross the sonar counter at Miles Lake, some 48 miles upriver.

A subcommittee report says the overharvesting claim is ''only weakly supported at best.''

About 500 boats usually begin harvesting on May 15 and have built a national mania for their fresh king and sockeye salmon, the earliest available from Alaska each season.

Delaying the fishery by two weeks could wreck that early market niche and cost the regional economy $13.5 million annually, according to a study by the town of Cordova.

The dipnetters claim the commercial fleet is wiping out the early spawning run.

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