Fish Board should reject politics in favor of biology

Posted: Friday, January 21, 2005

The sound biological management of our fisheries is what sets Alaska apart from other parts of the United States. Unfortunately, political pressure through the state's Board of Fisheries process threatens to change things forever.

Anyone who needs evidence of this need look no further than last year's salmon runs in Cook Inlet. Despite a large return of sockeye salmon to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, commercial fishers were forced to sit on the beach while thousands of salmon swam past their nets.

The reason? Fisheries managers tasked with controlling the number of fish that enter river systems were unable to open the fishery because of board regulations put in place that tie the hands of biologists. Because of mandatory closure times put into regulation by the board, biologists who didn't want so many fish in the river — and commercial fishers who were more than willing to go fishing — had to sit by and watch as a flood of sockeye choked the Kasilof River.

The result was an escapement that far exceeded the goal set for the river — a fact that wasn't lost on commercial fishers, who complained that overescapements mean lost revenue opportunities for an already hurting industry.

These regulations were not enacted because board members thought the closures would be good for the resource. In fact, biological models used by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game indicate that too many fish can cause a downturn in future returns.

So why were the regulations put in place? Because alongside each summer's sockeye salmon swim a small but significant number of chinook salmon, the bread-and-butter of the sportfishing industry and one of the most sought-after recreational fish on the planet. And since the current political dynamic at the board level has shifted toward placing an emphasis on sport use, mandatory sockeye closures ensure that more kings also swim into peninsula rivers.

This is a good thing for anglers who prefer a rod and reel to a gillnet; but it's also good for local businesses, as well. Lots of kings means fishing guides can stay booked, hotels can stay full and restaurants can sell lots of food. There's no doubt that sportfishing plays an enormous role in the economic vitality of the central peninsula, and that industry should be supported and protected at all costs.

However, when the wants of a segment of the business community begin to threaten the resource itself, it's time to draw the line. Just as it would be inappropriate for commercial fishers to push for guaranteed 24-hour, 7-day-a-week openings, sportfishing industry groups should not be asking for mandated closures that have no basis in science.

Commercial fishers have suffered through a decade of depressed prices. There's nothing the Alaska Board of Fisheries can do about that. What the board can do, however, is ensure that the people who should be making decisions on how many fish get harvested each year are making those choices. Otherwise, politics will have won. And if that happens, the loser won't just be the Cook Inlet commercial fishing industry, it will be everyone.

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