Fish meeting hooks interest, controversy

Posted: Thursday, March 30, 2006

Meetings planned to discuss how to disperse public funds in Kenai and Russian rivers watershed areas already are stirring controversy.

An introductory meeting and workshop has been scheduled for today and Friday at the Soldotna Sports Center by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

The group has identified a list of experts and resource managers who are invited to participate in discussions. Members of the public are invited to attend as observers.

Missing from the list of participants are commercial fishermen, who agree some of the studies KRSA is directing the funds to are valuable, but they worry that KRSA is targeting studies that could fuel future allocation battles between commercial and sportfishing industries.

KRSA is managing an ongoing project that began in 2004 and distributes about $4.6 million worth in Pacific Coastal Salmon Recovery and Southeast Sustainable Salmon Funds to support research in the Kenai and Russian rivers watershed areas.

“There’s some habitat issues they are addressing and that is a positive thing for the fish run,” said Steve Tvenstrup, president of United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

However, with KRSA making the ultimate decision about how the public funds are distributed, he said he feels some will be unfairly directed toward studies that support the sportfishing industry.

KRSA Executive Director Ricky Gease said KRSA directs the funds based on the expertise of resource managers rather than just relying on internal recommendations.

About $2.6 million of the funds already have been used, and meetings scheduled this week mark the second phase of determining how the remaining funds will be spent, approximately $2 million.

“I think we are pretty balanced in our approach,” Gease said. “We stand behind the approach of looking to professionals ... . We’re culling information from them about where the information gaps and information needs are.”

Gary L. Fandrei, executive director of the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, said the commercial fishermen’s concerns are not necessarily unfounded, though.

“Some of the issues that are to be discussed are directed at commercial fisheries management,” he said.

A request to use funds to address the accuracy of sonar fish counters, for example, ruffles some commercial fishermen, Fandrei said.

“It’s a way of getting at the allocation question without saying allocation,” he said.

The counters were not intended to accurately reflect the number of fish that enter a stream, but instead count a percent of the fish, a percent that should remain consistent from year to year and can be used to make annual comparisons, he said.

“It’s the driving mechanism for management,” he said.

Gease said anyone who wishes to bring a research issue to the table can address the research managers whose suggestions are then used to guide KRSA’s decisions on distributing the funds.

“They can channel that through the resource managers who will be at the meeting,” he said. “We look to the professionals to tell us where the information gaps are.”

The list of experts invited to participate in the meeting and workshop includes representatives from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and a wide range of interest groups such as the Kenai Watershed Forum, Kenaitze Indian Tribe and Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association.

However, commercial fishing organizations such as the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association and UCIDA are not represented.

“Those plans are going to affect me, and I think I should have some say,” said John McCombs, a driftnetter from Ninilchik. “The commercial fisheries should at least be informed and be at the table to discuss (recommendations).”

The meeting and a social hour will be held from 1 to 5:30 p.m. today at the Soldotna Sports Center and the workshop will be held Friday from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

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