Changes made by fish board are out of balance

Posted: Sunday, March 06, 2011

Upper Cook Inlet salmon are, from a user-group allocation perspective, the most hotly contested salmon in the state. Commercial fishermen, personal-use fishermen, sport fishermen, subsistence fishermen -- all have legitimate claims to the resource.

It would be impossible to try to make every user group happy. There just aren't enough fish in the sea. But, a good management plan should strike a balance that at least leaves everyone feeling like they have adequate opportunity and access to their respective fisheries. And it should address biological concerns without creating new ones.

In its deliberations this week, the Board of Fisheries has ignored that balance.

Over the course of the week, the fish board consistently adopted proposals to limit the time commercial fishermen can have their nets in the water, and in one proposal, vastly restricted the area in which they can fish.

Meanwhile, the fish board chose not to even consider changes in the personal-use fishery, and included a sport fish allocation of 200,000 sockeye into new escapement goals for the Kenai River. Restrictions implemented on commercial fishermen were proposed specifically to put more fish in rivers and streams for sport anglers.

By its actions, it's clear that the fish board now considers personal-use fisheries to be a management priority. Board member Karl Johnstone of Anchorage, who argued against any restrictions on the personal-use fishery, said the fishery serves the state's constitutional mandate of managing a public resource for the maximum benefit of Alaskans. Personal-use fishing benefits 80,000 Alaskans, he said.

It's an argument that resonates with the dipnetters who flock to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers each summer. The elevation of dipnetting's status is an interesting development, given that it is a relatively new fishery -- commercial and sport interests have been arguing over salmon allocation for decades -- and it has little in the way of formal organization, while sport and commercial fishermen have well funded organizations lobbying the board.

Still, the personal-use fisheries are not without their issues. Sooner or later, the fish board will have to overhaul the regulations, if for no other reason than simple physics. The fishery continues to grow in popularity, but there are only so many people, even standing shoulder-to-shoulder, that can fit in the designated area. When the fishery reaches its maximum capacity -- if it hasn't already -- then what?

The answer to that question is of immediate concern to commercial fishermen, who leave this fish board cycle stripped of much of clout they once had in Cook Inlet.

"Every board meeting, we go through this continuous cycle of loss," Robert Williams of Kasilof, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association. "They're making us economically inoperable."

Of note is where the proposals to limit commercial fishing come from. For example, the new regulation restricting the area in which the drift fleet can fish was proposed by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and the Matanuska-Susitna Mayor's Blue Ribbon Sportsman's Committee. While it addresses a stock of concern, coho salmon, it doesn't restrict sport harvest of the species. Rather, it restricts the drift fishery so that sport anglers have more opportunity to harvest coho.

Another measure, adjusting the upper end of the escapement range for Kenai River sockeyes, is described as an attempt to establish effective allocation for personal-use and sport fishermen, as well as to get more kings and coho into the Kenai River -- pitched by the Kenai River Sport Fishing Association.

It's "trying to get more kings in the river without hurting the sockeye run too much," board member Bill Brown said of the measure.

Which brings us back to the imbalance the fish board has now created in Cook Inlet salmon management. Taken individually, each measure might not be too damaging to future sockeye salmon runs. But taken as a whole, changes mean hundreds of thousands of sockeye salmon will not be harvested by commercial fishermen. Never mind the economic consequences -- the potential harm to the river ecosystem could be devastating. Recent poor returns of sockeye have been attributed to overescapement in the Kenai River several years ago. The board paid little heed to pleas, even from its own members, to consider the consequences of overescapement.

It's one thing to place sport or personal-use interests above commercial fishing interests. It's quite another to put sport and personal-use interests -- or in the case of Johnstone, concerns over Kenai area property values -- above biological concerns. The fish board cited stock conservation issues in the changes it adopted, but in its actions, simply restricted commercial fishing opportunity to create more harvest opportunity of those stocks for sport fishing interests.

Prohibiting one group from harvesting hundreds of thousands of sockeye so that another may harvest a few thousand coho or kings doesn't add up to balanced management.

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