Board of Fisheries should adopt rule to fix its process

Posted: Sunday, March 30, 2003

It wasn't all bad news that came out of the recent Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting.

But it wasn't all good news either.

The board definitely deserves kudos for taking the time to take public testimony on the central Kenai Peninsula on the issue of early-run king management on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers before the meeting officially began in Anchorage. The action gave those residents most affected by the board's decision last year a chance to be heard on a subject that evokes passion on all sides: catch-and-release fishing.

Also to their credit, the board made enough changes to an onerous regulation to make it more palatable to everyone. It added consistency to the early-run management by not changing the rules in the middle of the run -- provided, of course, escapement goals are being met. The new rules allow anglers to keep kings measuring smaller than 44 inches or 55 inches and larger from Jan. 1 through June 30.

The change provides resident anglers more opportunities to harvest than last year's regulation did, while still providing some protection for the largest, "five ocean" kings for which the Kenai is famous.

Not to its credit, however, the board adopted a provision that nonresident anglers may not fish from a boat for kings on the lower Kenai River between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. during May and June.

In hours upon hours upon countless hours of public testimony, such a proposal had never surfaced. It didn't come up in an advisory committee meeting and it didn't come up in the board's Committee F deliberations during which early-run king issues were discussed.

But in the final hours of the Board of Fish meeting, there it was.

The proposal may be well-intentioned: to provide residents with a greater opportunity to harvest kings during the early run.

But it fixes a nonexistent problem.

Yes, resident anglers often feel they are being crowded out by guides and nonresidents, but the Kenai's crowding problem is in July, not May and June. Plus, no matter what the month, guides are prohibited from being on the river between 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. So how does the regulation really provide residents with a greater opportunity?

Let's face it, fishing the early-run of kings is not every angler's dream. River conditions are often poor, the run is not nearly as big, no bait is allowed and it's more difficult to catch a fish. This is not a crowded fishery.

Worse, because of poor process -- the board passed a regulation that the public did not have the opportunity to discuss -- it's a sure bet the action will come back and haunt the board.

At least one board member wisely urged the board not to consider the proposal because of its allocative nature. Larry Engle said it was improper to take up the issue because the board was there to deal only with conservation issues, not allocation.

The allocation issue brings up the question: Is there a good reason to treat nonresidents differently during the early-king run? Whether Alaskans like it or not, those salmon are a shared resource. In times of shortage, residents should have subsistence priority on the state's fish and game resources, but this is not a time of shortage.

In their desire to show residents that they feel their pain, board members' feel-good measure may in the long run do more harm than good. While the board's action keeps nonresidents off the river in rental boats for 12 hours a day and may help with the illegal guide problem, the regulation also keeps residents from taking their nonresident relatives and friends out fishing for half a day, every day, during those two months. Those who believe in conspiracy theories will even see this as a regulation that originated with the guides, since residents who have to work days when they have visitors may be more likely to send their guests to guides than trust them with their own boat.

There are enough rules and regulations that govern fishing without adding new ones that serve no useful purpose. In fact, anglers soon may be well advised to make sure they are fishing with a lawyer or a biologist in order to make sure they don't break the rules.

Meanwhile, the board would do well to adopt some regulations of its own:

1. Don't ever adopt a regulation without giving those who will be affected by it a chance to comment. It's a poor process that results in poor regulations that don't serve the public good or the resource. The firestorm of controversy that erupted after last year's meeting should have been lesson enough. Apparently, it wasn't.

2. Stick to a three-year cycle for considering Kenai issues. While the board needed to consider this early-run issue after its disastrous decision last year, it now should stick to considering Kenai issues every three years as it is supposed to do.

3. Hold all meetings in which the Kenai River is considered on the central peninsula to give those most affected the chance to comment.

Those three things really boil down to one: Good public process will result in rules that best serve the resource and the public.

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