Bill would remove politics from salmon

Posted: Wednesday, February 11, 2004

Rep. Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, has introduced a bill he said could enhance the numbers of salmon available to all user groups and take politics out of fish management by leaving escapement decisions to the biologists.

House Bill 396 amends Alaska fish and game statutes to focus the attention of game managers toward "important and dominant salmon stocks" when making decisions to meet "sustained yield" requirements of the law.

"Right now, it is really and simply an issue of overescapement," Chenault said last week. "Last year, and in previous years, we have overescaped the Kenai River especially."

Chenault said despite good management efforts by local biologists, a half million more reds were allowed to swim to the spawning grounds than were necessary to meet sustained yield escapement goals.

"I've been told that amounts to lost revenues of between $4 million and $8 million," Chenault said, adding that was money lost not only to commercial fishers but also to canneries and to municipal fish tax streams.

Existing state law now requires the Board of Fisheries to adopt policies that provide for managing mixed-stock fisheries in a manner "consistent with sustained yield of wild fish stocks." It does not differentiate between species, however.

Chenault's proposed amendments would add language so that management of mixed-stock fisheries is consistent with "maximum sustained yield of important and dominant salmon stocks" and with sustained yield of "other" wild fish stocks.

The bill defines "dominant salmon stock" as wild salmon that "is consistently more productive and numerically more abundant or is consistently more commercially valuable than other salmon stocks."

It defines "important salmon stock" as wild salmon for which the department "has established a scientifically based escapement goal and a stock management plan to maintain the stock at escapement levels consistent with maximum sustained yield of the stock."

The bill also would require fish managers to base escapement decisions on "the best reliable scientific information available to the department."

One clause explains that when it is not practical to manage a stock for "maximum" sustained yield, the commissioner of Fish and Game would be given the discretion to "exercise the professional judgment of the department" to ensure escapement sufficient to provide for sustained yield of the stock.

Another provision covers how management decisions should "seek a balance" during fishing season if it is impossible to meet escapement goals for all species simultaneously. Escapement levels would then be set "in a manner that does the least harm collectively to the productivity of all stocks and species in the fishery or management area."

Other provisions would require the commissioner of Fish and Game to conserve depressed salmon stocks and, where practical, rehabilitate and enhance those stocks; avoid overharvest that might threaten sustained yield; and avoid overescapement that might threaten maximum sustained yield.

The Board of Fisheries, meanwhile, would be required to adopt regulation policies "consistent with salmon escapement goals and harvest goals established by the commissioner."

Under the terms of the proposed bill, the board would be required to allocate the harvestable portion of salmon stocks in accordance with certain rules.

Among these are provisions that:

n For fully developed salmon fisheries, the board may not exclude existing, historic users from taking historic levels of salmon except to achieve conservation goals set by the commissioner. Nor may the board authorize escapement greater than necessary to satisfy escapement goals.

n The board shall give priority consideration to the history of use of a salmon stock;

n The board shall provide that salmon in excess of that number needed to meet escapement goals be available for harvest.

Doug Mecum, director of the Division of Commercial Fishing, said Commissioner Kevin Duffy had asked him to have the Division of Commercial Fishing work with the Department of Law and the Alaska Board of Fish "to try and formulate, if not opinions, than at least some issues that we see."

Mecum said the bill raised some legal issues about how the Board of Fish operates relative to how the commissioner operates, as well as how it might be implemented if it became law.

"It generates quite a number of questions," Mecum said. He did not elaborate.

The bill currently is the House Special Committee on Fisheries. No hearing has been scheduled.

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