Board of Fisheries chair gets earful at meeting

Posted: Friday, February 01, 2002

Alaska Board of Fisheries Chair Ed Dersham could breathe a little easier Wednesday night at the Kenai-Soldotna Fish and Game Advisory Committee's meeting, but not much.

Dersham, who is recovering from a bout with pneumonia, discussed a wide variety of issues facing the board at its upcoming meetings, which begin Feb. 6 in Anchorage. The meeting took on a somewhat subdued tone as committee members and the public asked questions and commented on the issues facing the board.

The board is scheduled to look at upper Cook Inlet finfish issues at the meeting, which runs through Feb. 20.

Members of the board and the public at large praised Dersham for attending. There has been concern recently from several area interest groups that the Board of Fish ignores the recommendations of the advisory committee.

Dersham, who lives in Anchor Point, said he hoped his attending the meeting would allay some of those concerns.

"The board gives full consideration to all aspects of the issues. Hopefully this (meeting) will clear up some misunderstandings," he said.

Much of the meeting was taken up by commentary from the public. Several people expressed concern about the board's recent decision to cut the limit on king salmon caught in all Cook Inlet waters to five fish per year. This regulation, enacted against the recommendation of the advisory committee, effectively ended the winter "feeder" king sport fishery in Cook Inlet.

Dersham said he, too, was surprised by the board's decision on that issue. He said the vote was 5-2 in favor of cutting the yearly limit. He defended the board's decision by stating that the board traditionally tries to limit new growing fisheries. When asked about the chances of the board considering a petition by Homer area fishers to overturn the decision, he expressed doubt that the regulation would be changed.

Another issue discussed was how the board will handle the issue of sockeye escapement on the Kenai River. Currently the river is managed for an optimum escapement of 650,000 to 800,000 sockeye. Last year, 642,753 sockeye escaped to spawn in Kenai River drainages. Concern was raised by those in attendance that habitat loss from overfishing on the river and overpopulation of smolt was hurting the overall run, and that by raising the escapement figures, the board was hurting the resource.

Dersham said the board would consider habitat issues and that he is anxious to see reports on the issue from the sport and commercial divisions of the state Department of Fish and Game.

Another issue the committee discussed with Dersham was subsistence fisheries. Dersham said the board strongly favors a rural preference for subsistence users.

Overall, members of the advisory committee were pleased that Dersham took the time to attend the meeting. However, some expressed concern that the board would not look at the committee's recommendations.

"I think we had a good, warm exchange of ideas," said committee chair Brent Johnson.

Johnson said Dersham's visit illustrates that the board does indeed listen to the advisory committee.

"There's no doubt that the board is stacked with non-commercial users. They do try to make good decisions based on all the information."

He highlighted the fact that the board would likely not raise sockeye escapement on the Kenai as one example of how the board listens to the committee.

One committee member said she was pleased with the meeting.

"The value of the committee is that it is part of the democratic process. It gives the public the chance to better understand the issues," said Kathleen Graves, who holds a personal-use seat on the committee.

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