Conserving Cook Inlet cohos is the issue, and who bears the burden is the question when the Alaska Board of Fisheries meets this week in Anchorage.
Sport and personal-use fishers bore the brunt of restrictions imposed in 1997 to cut the harvest of Kenai River cohos, said Brett Huber, executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association Inc.
"We feel like sport and personal-use fishermen have been to the table," he said. "That doesn't mean we're not willing to do more. But now, they ought to look at everyone else, and come up with something that's fair and equitable."
Commercial driftnet fishers say the board already has cut 40 percent from its harvest to send more salmon to the northern inlet. But the extra fish go to sport fishers, not to the spawning grounds, said Phil Squires, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.
"We've never had any problem with conservation measures and burden-sharing," he said. "But over the last four years, they've gutted our fishery, and they've never put any restrictive measures on the other fisheries up the line."
Sport fishers talk conservation, he said, but the real issue is allocation.
The board considers Cook Inlet regulatory changes every three years. It considered them a year ago and was not scheduled to do so again until the winter of 2001-02. In September, though, Gov. Tony Knowles cited three years of poor Cook Inlet coho returns and asked the board to meet as soon as possible to write a Cook Inlet coho conservation and management plan.
The board agreed and will meet Wednesday through Friday. The agenda also includes a proposal to resurrect the trophy fishery for early-run Kenai River king salmon. The trophy fishery would allow anglers to keep trophy-sized kings during weak runs, as long as the Department of Fish and Game did not feel that would jeopardize spawning escapement.
The board's meeting was to be in Girdwood but has been moved to the Sheraton Anchorage Hotel due to continued danger of avalanches on the Seward Highway.
Huber said he is glad the board agreed to Knowles' request and agrees with much of the analysis Fish and Game has provided for the meeting.
"The first real message is, the department has a lot less information and a lot less-structured management for coho salmon than for other species," he said. "From what we do know, we have at least three or four years where we're experiencing a downward trend in coho production. They said there are stocks they are concerned for and gave a smorgasbord of actions that could be taken to address those."
Squires, though, questioned whether there is enough of a conservation concern to warrant a special meeting.
"You'd think that if there was a biological problem, the governor wouldn't have to identify it to his Department of Fish and Game and his Board of Fisheries," he said.
Karl Kircher, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, said he has been trying to understand where there is a conservation concern. He provided a letter from Kenai Peninsula legislators Sen. John Torgerson, R-Kasilof, and Reps. Gail Phillips, R-Homer; Gary Davis, R-Soldotna; and Hal Smalley, D-Kenai, questioning the procedures that led to the special meeting.
"Our concerns are with the process for this Board of Fisheries meeting, beginning with an Agenda Change Request by Gov. Knowles," the legislators wrote. "To the best of our knowledge, this is the only time a governor has requested an agenda change. Certainly this event is sufficient cause for concern about the process. ..."
The board will hear no oral testimony from the general public this week, though it will take written comments. Meanwhile, Fish and Game did not release its stock status reports until Jan. 20. The lack of access to department information increases public suspicion of its conclusions, the legislators wrote.
"We cannot support the position of the BOF to obstruct public testimony," they wrote. "We understand that the position was taken because it was concluded that public testimony presented at the meeting in February of 1999 is adequate to address this issue a year later. If this is indeed the reasoning, we believe the board's internal process is in desperate need of review and perhaps a revision via the legislative process."
Jeff Fox, area management biologist for the Division of Commer-cial Fisheries in Soldotna, said cohos have declined statewide for several reasons. The 1999 run was spawned in 1995. Widespread flooding that fall and the cold winter that followed likely hurt the 1999 run, he said.
"There was poor ocean survival," he said. "We know that from hatchery fish. That was statewide."
Fox said the board can allow the department to manage in-season and adjust for changing runs. But in-season decisions are subjective, since there are few in-season measures of coho runs.
The board could give the department less flexibility and manage by regulation. In that case, he said, it should set the regulations to accommodate the weakest runs, and that means restrictions to cut back harvests.
"If you want to do something so that in all years you're going to meet escapement goals without new restrictions, it's going to be fairly onerous," Fox said. "People may pay a burden they don't need to pay."
Squires said Fish and Game relies on the drift fleet to control spawning escapement during bumper sockeye runs. If the board restricts the drift fleet to conserve cohos, he said, sockeyes may overcrowd the Kenai River, hurting future production.
But Huber said sockeyes always have driven Cook Inlet management.
"We support the recognition that there are other species of concern, too, and we have to do a better job of managing them as well," he said.
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