Sockeye votes may hit snag

Fish board member recuses himself, changing voting numbers

Posted: Tuesday, January 18, 2005

As any good angler knows, getting on the water early is often the best way to guarantee action. That principle was mirrored Monday during the first day of the Alaska Board of Fisheries Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage, as the most interesting bit of business took place within the first hour.

During the portion of the meeting reserved for board members to disclose conflicts of interest, board member Mel Morris of Kodiak announced he will not participate in discussions related to 26 proposals dealing with the Kenai and Kasilof River sockeye management plans. Morris is a fish broker who deals in inlet fish and thus said his business interest would conflict with decisions on the issues contained in the proposals.

Following the meeting, Morris said he decided it would be best to avoid the management plan issue.

"Knowing I have a financial interest in this fishery, I have to look at all the things covered in the ethical disclosure," Morris said.

He said that, because of his business, not participating in decisions relating to the fishery would be in the best interest of the board process.

"I think that's the best way to do it," he said.

During breaks in the meeting, Morris' decision was the hot topic among members of the public in attendance because the sockeye management plans are expected to be one of the biggest issues addressed by the board.

Commercial fishers believe the plans should be changed in order to allow them to have more fishing time and to give biologists greater flexibility in managing fish runs. Last year, they argue, mandatory closures helped cause over escapements on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers and detracted from their businesses.

However, some sport fishing advocates believe the current plans, which include mandatory commercial fishing closure "windows," is in the best interest of the Kenai Peninsula's sport fishing and tourism industries.

"Our goal is to provide meaningful, predictable, in-river harvest opportunities," said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

KRSA, along with the Kenai River Professional Guides Association and the Kenai River Property Owners Association, submitted a proposal to the board which would clarify that the current windows provisions should be followed even if in-river escapements are above the upper end of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game's optimum escapement goal.

Gease said sport fishing interests on the Kenai Peninsula are an important and growing segment of the area's economy that should be protected by the Board of Fish. He pointed to a recent study by the Institute of Social and Economic Research that said sport fishing contributes $700 million to the Alaska economy.

"Sport fishing plays a tremendously important role in the social, cultural and economic fabric of the Cook Inlet boroughs," he said.

The majority of the proposals Morris opted out of, however, seek to eliminate the mandated closures or otherwise increase fishing time for commercial fishers. Paul Shadura, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association — which submitted proposals to liberalize fishing under the management plans — said the loss of Morris during the decision-making process could hurt the chances of changes to the plan being made.

"It will be very difficult for four votes to be had," Shadura said.

Shadura said he was disappointed in Morris' decision.

"I think it will stymie the whole process," he said.

Shadura argued that commercial fishing is a historically significant portion of the Kenai Peninsula economy, and that commercial fishers have suffered under the existing management plan.

"Salmon fisheries are already back on their heels," he said.

Shadura said with the impending closure of Agrium's nitrogen plant and the possible closure of the ConocoPhillips' liquid natural gas facility, the Kenai Peninsula can ill afford to lose another major part of its economy.

"There aren't many alternatives left," he said.

Board Chair Art Nelson of Anchorage said it's unclear how Morris' decision will affect the board's deliberation process.

"I think it's really hard to say at this point," Nelson said.

Monday's first day of meetings wrapped up early because one member, Rupe Andrews of Juneau, was unable to attend because of illness. Because board members must hear all public testimony, Nelson said it was decided to not take public testimony until today in order to allow Andrews to hear what the public has to say.

Instead of public testimony, the board adjourned in the early afternoon after hearing reports from ADFG personnel on the state of Upper Cook Inlet fisheries.

The meetings will continue through next week.

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