The Upper Cook Inlet Management Plan will not be changed prior to the start of the 2007 fishing season, the Alaska Board of Fisheries decided Tuesday during a teleconferenced meeting.
The board met by phone to discuss an emergency petition from four Upper Cook Inlet setnetters seeking changes to the Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan (UCISMP). Robert Williams, Jeffery Beaudoin, Brent Johnson and Herman Hermansen had asked the board to clear up “apparent ambiguities” in management priorities by adopting an emergency regulation making it clear that the primary objective of management was achieving established escapement goals.
In their petition, the fishermen said that unless language was clarified, the 2007 season would begin without the Alaska Department of Fish and Game knowing whether staying within restrictions or meeting established escapement goals would be the greater management priority. According to the fishermen, the department acknowledged the priority dilemma in a salmon management issues paper in December 2006 that noted that the Board of Fisheries had adopted escapement goals, windows, and established fishing time restrictions, but that it was “unclear which is the higher priority; allowable fishing time or management within the escapement goals.”
According to the petitioners, the uncertainty has meant fish worth millions have gone unharvested, though harvests have been biologically justifiable.
“Without clarification written into the UCISMP, large sockeye salmon escapement events, well in excess of established goals, will continue,” the fishermen said.
They noted that the Kasilof River sockeye salmon run forecast for 2007 is almost 1.25 million fish, the largest forecasted run in the system’s history.
The central concern of the petition was to clarify intent language that would “allow for the harvest of surplus salmon,” said Art Nelson, the board’s vice chair. He and other board members hashed over aspects of the proposed language change, including which of several defined escapement goals would be used. They included “in-river escapement,” “sustainable escapement,” “biological escapement,” or “optimal escapement,” all of which have different meanings.
Nelson said the management plans adopted in 2005 were not “fully achieving” the board’s intent of balancing the various competing needs of fishermen and escapement goals that can ensure healthy future runs.
“We are still significantly, in some circumstances, exceeding our escapement goals, and that has been resulting in lost harvest opportunities,” he said.
Nelson said adopting the revised language was appropriate and did not amount to explicitly plugging in fishing times or reducing closure windows or other management manipulations. It only clarified that escapement goals were the priority.
“I know Cook Inlet certainly comes with allocation battles at a white-heat level, but what we need to keep in mind here is all we are saying is managing for the goals takes priority over all the rest of it,” he said.
Board member Larry Edfelt said he disagreed with the process and the timing of the proposal, and with the logic of taking the action to alter, preseason, a major Cook Inlet management plan.
“It is possible for anyone to take a plan and cherry-pick a provision that is unclear or not sufficiently definitive and it is possible to craft for changing any plan to maximize a particular harvest or optimize a particular escapement,” he said. “Therein lies the root of what we are dealing with here because mathematically it is always impossible to maximize or minimize more than one independent variable at a time. And these Cook Inlet plans attempt to maximize or minimize harvests for three user groups and five species of salmon and achieve escapement goals in the Kenai and the Kasilof and the entire Northern District.”
The fact that there are still abundant salmon in Cook Inlet was testament, he said, to the artfulness of the managers in-season over several decades. “These are the managers who get beat on repeatedly regarding particular clauses in these management plans,” he said.
Edfelt said arguments that overescapement is biologically harmful to river systems seemed overblown, adding that he had not seen any data showing that over escapement leads to less fish.
Edfelt was concerned particularly with the timing of proposing a change in the management plan prior to an upcoming season when the board has a “full-blown” meeting on Cook Inlet planned for the fall where all management plans could be reviewed. He decried the idea of changing a management plan during an emergency telephone conference rather than at a public meeting with full public participation. The teleconference was public, but no public testimony was taken.
The seven-member board split on the issue. Chairman Mel Morris, of Kodiak, along with Nelson, of Anchorage, and Robert Heyano, of Dillingham, voted in favor of the language change, but Edfelt of Auke Bay, Jeremiah Campbell of Seward, John Jenson of Petersburg, and Bonnie Williams of Fairbanks, voted no, and the motion failed.
Beaudoin expressed regret at the board’s action.
“My opinion was that the petition asked only that intent and direction in management for the department regarding escapement goals established in Upper Cook Inlet be consistent with the board’s intent in current regulation,” he said. “Chair Mel Morris, Art Nelson and Robert Heyano fully understood the issue on actions to be taken. Those board members were at the 2005 meeting with full understanding of the intent of the board at that time.”
Beaudoin also noted that Fish and Game Commissioner-designee Denby Lloyd also understood and wanted the action requested in the petition.
“Unfortunately, the other board members chose to vote in the negative on issues regarding escapement outside the petition’s request, including incorrect information regarding production and yield.
Beaudoin said all the issues would be taken up at the fall meeting.
“Proposals have been sent in on these issues, but that does little for the 2007 season, which was regarding an emergency situation.”
The “no” vote leaves the current regulation intact. Commissioner Lloyd said the department would be managing for the “in-river” goals set in the plans. The commissioner has the authority to manage the fisheries through emergency order. Nothing in the failed proposed language would have altered that authority.
Hal Spence can be reached at email@example.com.
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