Every three years, Kenai Peninsula residents have a chance to change state fisheries law everything from how many rainbow trout an individual angler can harvest each day to the type of gear commercial salmon fishers can use through Alaska's unique Board of Fisheries process.
Although meetings often are contentious and controversial, the fact that such a process exists at all is a testament to the overall strength of the state's fish resources.
"It's a whole different world," said Ray Beamsderfer, a former Washington biologist attending this week's BOF meeting in Anchorage as a consultant to the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.
Beamsderfer said there's a fundamental difference between Alaska's fisheries and those of the rest of the Pacific Northwest because Alaska's salmon and other fish stocks are abundant across the board.
"Most of our stocks are in very bad shape," he said.
The Board of Fisheries consists of seven members appointed by the governor and charged with making regulations for the entire state. Board Executive Director Diana Cote said the board meets in a cycle that includes four or five meetings each year so each area of the state is covered once every three years.
Cote said the process is unique because the public is able to influence management and allocation decisions.
"The board tries to keep it as open as possible," Cote said.
When an area's turn comes up, the board convenes for roughly two weeks. In that time, public testimony is taken and then members of the public are chosen to sit on committees that sift through and debate proposals submitted earlier in the year by the public and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
This year, 451 proposals are included and range from proposals that would reduce the size of sein nets used in herring fishing to one that would radically cut the amount of time fishing guides can operate on the Kenai River.
Each committee also includes regular board members, who report back to the full board following committee meetings. The committees' recommendations are taken under advisement, and the board then deliberates and votes on proposals. It takes four votes to pass a regulation.
Behind the scenes are the biologists from Fish and Game, who make their own recommendations on proposals and compile statistical data to guide the board.
Jeff Fox, a commercial fisheries biologist in Soldotna, said preparing for the board meeting is an enormous chore that requires Fish and Game staff to work for months in order to provide all the data needed. Basically, Fox said the role of the biologists is to bring information to the board so it can make an informed decision.
"We tell them what's biologically sound and what isn't," he said.
Most regulations taken up by the board aren't scientifically motivated, but rather based on allocation of stocks to individual user groups.
"Most of them aren't biological, they're social," Fox said.
In essence, the board is the body that decides how Alaska's large fish fillet is sliced up and who gets which piece.
The system isn't perfect, however. Each cycle, various users can be expected to complain that they got a raw deal from the board. But Diana Cote said the system is much better than most places in the United States, where the public has little say in decisions, and fish stocks often are depleted.
"Alaska does pride itself on having the best public process for its regulatory structure for its fisheries," she said. "I could have a stream in my back yard and I can have an influence in how its fish are managed."
This cycle's meeting will continue through next week at the Coast International Inn in Anchorage.
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