Fish board nets mixed review

Posted: Sunday, January 30, 2005

As two weeks of discussions on upper Cook Inlet sport, commercial and personal-use fisheries came to a close Saturday in Anchorage, reviews decidedly were mixed among meeting participants from the Kenai Peninsula.

"We feel we were totally shut out of the process," said Paul Shadura, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association.

Shadura said the board's decision earlier in the week to continue its policy of mandating closure windows for east side setnetters demonstrated the board's unwillingness to consider legitimate concerns.

"They didn't listen," he said.

Not everyone shared Shadura's outlook on board decisions. Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease said he believes the board took a number of steps that help the biological health of the river as well as commercial and sport users in the inlet.

"Through the process, the various stakeholder groups' needs were expressed and recognized by the Board of Fish," Gease said.

He pointed to regulation changes that give more potential emergency fishing time to commercial fishers as proof that the board was open to all concerns.

"I think ultimately what this meeting did was reconfigure how the central district commercial fishery is set up to be more efficient for both drift and setnet fishers," Gease said.

He said the windows concept — which setnetters claim ties the hands of biologists by essentially mandating one 36-hour closure and one 24-hour closure per week — adds stability and predictability for Kenai River sportfishers.

"It will help people on the Kenai Peninsula, as well as Anchorage and Mat-Su, to plan for the opportunity to go fishing," he said.

Inlet drift fishers said they were satisfied with the outcome of the meeting. Steve Tvenstrup, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, said his organization feels like steps were taken by the board that will add opportunity for inlet fishers.

"We got some time and areas back that we got taken away at previous meetings," Tvenstrup said.

The board added fishing time for drifters during the regular season and also opened fishing for coho salmon on the west side of Cook Inlet later in the season, something Tvenstrup said will help the local economy.

"(Drifters) will be able to go over there and get the opportunity to get some cohos for some niche markets," he said.

But although drift fishers and KRSA were positive about the meeting's outcome, Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee Chair Dwight Kramer echoed Shadura's bleak assessment of the process.

Kramer said he was disappointed that the board appeared to listen to KRSA more than the advisory committee, which is tasked with providing local input to the board.

"The AC is being snubbed by the board and that bothers me a lot," Kramer said.

Kramer said the association, which rented out a room adjacent to the main meeting room at the Coast International Hotel, has become too powerful and acts to subvert local sportfishers at the expense of in-river guides.

"I respect KRSA for the things they do for the river and the community, but their desire to control the Board of Fish process with capital and lobbying is a turnoff for all people involved. I believe their image is rapidly dissipating within the angling public," Kramer said.

Kramer said the windows concept is bad biologically and was instituted to protect Anchorage-based sportfishers and nonresident guided anglers.

"The board is under the impression that KRSA speaks for sportfishermen, and that's simply not true," he said.

Gease refuted Kramer's claims and said the local advisory committee had ample opportunity to testify before the board and make its feelings known.

"Information was gathered at public meetings, as well as through the Kenai-Soldotna, Mat-Su, Anchorage and Cooper Landing advisory committees," he said. "All these public comments were brought to the Board of Fish and were recognized."

The windows concept and how to manage sockeye stocks in the inlet were the most talked-about issues of the meeting. The board also made a number of changes that will impact Kenai Peninsula anglers, including:

n Allowing the harvest of Kenai River coho salmon through the end of October;

n Allowing Kasilof River anglers to harvest up to five king salmon per year from the river, to continue fishing after retaining a king, to use multiple hooks while fishing and to harvest wild Kasilof kings on Tuesdays and Saturdays;

n Allowing Cook Inlet commercial fishers to use spotter aircraft to help locate schools of fish;

n Streamlining rainbow trout and Dolly Varden rules on the Kenai so they are consistent throughout the river and allowing rainbows less than 18 inches in length to be kept above Skilak Lake;

n Allowing the Department of Fish and Game to open the Kenai River to king salmon fishing in early August if escapement criteria are met;

n Scaling back closures on the upper Kenai River to allow bank fishing for sockeye salmon in areas closed to fishing from boats; and

n Allowing up to 10 flounder per household to be harvested in the Kenai River personal-use fishery.

Despite the contention between some groups at the meeting, most people who attended said there seemed to be less open animosity between groups.

"It's been an enjoyable meeting compared to some in the past," Tvenstrup said.

Even Kramer, who left the meeting upset about a number of issues, said he was pleased with how user groups were able to cooperate on some points.

"I was happy we were able to work in cooperation with the Kenai River Professional Guides Association to find some solutions to the Kasilof River king salmon fishery," Kramer said.

He also noted the coho extension on the Kenai and the streamlining of rainbow and Dolly rules as triumphs of cooperation among peninsula user groups.

As things came to an end Saturday afternoon, the board members thanked Fish and Game staff and other state employees for their patience and hard work during the two-week meeting.

Board chair Art Nelson of Anchorage — who stayed at the hotel the entire two weeks and said he only returned home to do some laundry — said he was pleased with the work the board was able to do and particularly gratified with how smooth the process went.

"A few speed bumps are always expected, but this went really well," he said.

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