Hands off: Fish board won't touch personal-use fisheries

Posted: Friday, March 04, 2011

The Alaska Board of Fisheries kept things status quo so far for the Kenai Peninsula's personal-use fisheries at its meeting in Anchorage Thursday.

In its fourth day of deliberations on hundreds of proposals submitted to try and change fishing regulations in Upper Cook Inlet, the board took up 18 out of the nearly 30 proposals mainly seeking to limit the resident-only fishery, and took action by voting down three of them.

"These are treasured fish, these sockeye," said fisheries board member Karl Johnstone, of Anchorage, who was opposed to any of the limits to the fishery.

He said the personal-use fishery benefits 80,000 Alaskans. Families plan their vacations around it and many people talk about it, Johnstone said.

The fishery serves the state's constitutional mandate of managing a public resource for the maximum benefit of Alaskans.

Some 300,000 sockeye salmon are harvested during the Kenai River dipnet fishery on average per year during its 21-day season.

"I know commercial fisherman would like to see it reduced," he said. The personal-use fishery is something "we don't want to take lightly and mess with too much."

In response, board member John Jensen said that commercial fishermen are Alaska residents too. And commercial fishermen feed hundreds of thousands of people with their product, he said.

"I'm really concerned about the rate of growth in this fishery and how it affects the commercial fishery," he said. "I'd like to see something happen to reduce catch a little bit to balance it out before it goes completely the other way."

Board chairman Vince Webster said every other user group in the Kenai River has restrictions.

"We regulate every user group even subsistence. It's almost like this is hands-off no matter what."

Webster said a plan to restrict the fishery for conservation concerns might be prudent.

But despite the discussion Thursday the board took no action to limit the fishery, and it does not appear they will when they finish up deliberations on personal-use proposals today. The three proposals the board did take a stand on by voting against were trying to restrict the fishery in time and harvest limits.

"Know what I think about them taking no action on the personal-use? I think that they need to look at it better and set some guidelines," said Kenai resident and commercial fisher Christine Brandt, who is attending the meeting. "The Department of Fish and Game has asked for guidelines to not necessarily restrict but help the escapement goals into the Kenai River."

She said she thinks guidelines and limits would be feasible for the fishery.

"We change at a moment's notice when we're commercial fishing and with sometimes less than four hours notice, and we're able to do that. There's no reason that the PU fishery couldn't have a lower bag limit and it be increased when the escapements goals are met," she said.

Other attendees think the personal-use fishery should be left alone.

Ron Rainey, Kenai resident and board member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he was in agreement with the board.

"I think the personal-use fishery is great the way it is and I would not foresee or recommend any changes to it at this point in time," he said. "I would have voted the way the board voted and voted no on all of them."

In the only action the board passed regarding the personal-use fishery, it directed the department to revise the definition of "personal use" in regulation because it is more restrictive than the definition in Alaska state statute. Because the statute trumps the regulation, it is unenforceable.

Net gain

Despite one net gain for commercial fishermen Thursday in the board's decision on permit stacking for set gillnet sites that allows more nets in the water, the board made motions that could restrict the commercial fishery in Upper Cook Inlet yet again.

The board created its own proposal seeking to define a commercial fishing period as 24 hours in response to a proposal to revise the commercial fishing season's closing date in the Kenai, Kasilof and East Forelands section to Aug. 15.

The board-generated proposal came about in relation to the "1 percent rule," a management tool in the Cook Inlet commercial fishery to minimize the catch of coho salmon when an abundance of sockeye salmon is being caught. The rule states that if there are two fishing periods where less than one percent of a commercial fisherman's total sockeye harvest up to that point is caught, the season ends.

Johnstone, who created the proposal, said the concern is that the department can avoid the 1 percent rule by extending the fishing period.

"The whole purpose of the 1 percent rule was to save coho," he said.

In order to get the most public comment possible on the new proposal, it was tabled until the board takes up miscellaneous business on Saturday.

"This is just another blow to Cook Inlet, to the Eastside setnet fishermen," said Kasilof resident Robert Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association.

He said with a defined 24-hour fishing period the season could possibly end Aug.1 or Aug. 2.

"Every board meeting we go through this continuous cycle of losses," he said. "They're making us economically inoperable."

The board also passed a pink salmon management plan to allow for the harvest of extra pinks with set gillnet gear, but if the 24-hour period is enforced and the commercial fishery is closed because of the 1 percent rule before the dates set in the plan, set gillnetters will not be able to harvest the pinks.

The board continues deliberations on personal use and sport fish proposals today.

Brielle Schaeffer can be reached at brielle.schaeffer@peninsulaclarion.com.

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