Salmon wars end

Posted: Friday, April 01, 2011

Yogi Berra's "It ain't over 'til it's over" was never more true than during the most recent meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

If you're reading this, you likely know the fish board met to consider regulation changes for Upper Cook Inlet finfish, Feb. 20 to March 5. You also may have read or heard that the panel left sport and personal-use fishing regulations pretty much as-is, but further restricted commercial fishing. But what you didn't read or hear is what occurred later in March.

It happened while the board was meeting at the Hilton Hotel in Anchorage, March 22 - 26, to address proposals for statewide king and tanner crab regulations. Early on the second day, a Department of Fish and Game biologist was explaining one of the department's proposals when his testimony was interrupted by a commotion at the back of room. All heads turned. A number of people, maybe 15, came trooping in. First in line was Gov. Sean Parnell.

Board Chairman Vince Webster welcomed the governor and his staff, but it was obvious that he and the other board members had no idea why the governor was there. They weren't in the dark for long.

"Thank you, Mr. Chairman, and I apologize for the interruption," Parnell said. "But I'm here on a matter of great importance, and I request a few minutes of the board's time."

Webster, obviously flummoxed, looked left and right. Seeing and hearing no dissent, he said, "Governor, you have the floor."

"During my campaign for the governorship, I promised to end the contentious debates over salmon allocation in the Cook Inlet region. I'm now going to fulfill that promise."

He had my attention. It gets interesting when a governor pokes a stick into the ants' nest of Cook Inlet salmon fishing.

Parnell went on, saying he was issuing an order, effective immediately, under authority of the Constitution of the State of Alaska, Article 8, Section 15, "No exclusive right or special privilege of fishery shall be created or authorized in the natural waters of the State." The governor said a review by his legal staff had shown that nearly all of Alaska's fishing regulations were unconstitutional, as they granted exclusive rights and special privileges. Since the regulations were therefore not enforceable, he was giving the Commissioner of Fish and Game emergency authority until the board could hold public hearings and draft new rules for the various fisheries. Then he dropped the bomb.

"For the coming season," Parnell said, "all salmon fishing in Cook Inlet waters, including all streams and including sport, personal-use, subsistence and commercial fishing, will be catch-and-release only."

The governor explained his reasoning. The tsunami in Japan and the flagging U.S. economy had ruined this year's salmon market, he said, so it made sense to "bank" this year's runs. On the plus side, streams will be brimful of fish, and will draw "tens of thousands" more tourists to the area, creating new jobs. As for commercial fishermen, they'll be able to fish and continue to enjoy their "market-hunting lifestyle," he said. Salmon that don't survive being released from gill nets will add nutrients to the food chain. Other species, including crab and halibut, can't help but benefit.

"Best of all," Parnell concluded, "this will end the bitter debates over Cook Inlet salmon."

The governor thanked the board, turned and left the room.

If anyone other than board members, bureaucrats and a few crab fishermen had been there, Parnell's announcement would've set off an explosion of outrage. Instead, there was only silence. I couldn't believe what I was hearing. And I wonder if you'll believe what you're reading.

Les Palmer lives in Sterling. In the 23 years he has written for the Clarion, his weekly outdoor column has appeared on April Fool's Day very few times. This is one of those times.

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