Subsistence issue may mean more change

Fish feed economy, fuel fierce debates

Posted: Saturday, April 22, 2000

Fish have been the lifeblood of the Kenai Peninsula since people first began arriving here.

There is evidence of Native Alaskan fish camps at the mouth of the Kenai River dating back 3,000 years. The Kenaitze Indians were long since established when the Russians first opened a trading post at the mouth of the Kenai River in the mid-18th century for trading purposes.

In the latter part of the 20th century, fish are still king on the Kenai Peninsula. Peninsula commercial fishers working in Cook Inlet and elsewhere bring approximately $90 to $100 million annually at wholesale prices to the peninsula's economy, according to commercial fishers.

Sport fishing numbers are harder to monitor. Faron Owen, executive director of Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council, said his organization only tracks revenues from lodgings and services. But steady increases in those is a good index of the phenomenal growth of tourism in the past two decades.

In 1987, $10 million was spent on lodging on the peninsula, and an additional $3 million was spent on services. In 1997, the latest year Owen has figures for, nearly $28 million was spent on lodging and more than $24.5 million on services

According to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, angler effort on the Kenai River more than doubled during the past 20 years from about 160,000 days annually in 1977 to nearly 400,000 days annually during the last decade.

The number of visitors to the Kenai Peninsula, most of whom Fish and Game presumes to be anglers, has doubled in just the last decade, according to department officials.

A great many "cottage industries," such as bed and breakfasts, cafes and other tourism services have sprung up to serve this swelling tide of visitors. Bill Deal, vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Bed and Breakfast Association doesn't have exact figures for the number of bed and breakfasts on the Kenai Peninsula, but he said his most recent mailing (to both members and nonmembers) contained 122 names. Owen said that cafes, souvenir shops and other businesses are supported by the lodgers.

In recent years, a perennial conflict has arisen between the growing ranks of anglers and commercial fishers. This year, a new player has emerged as potentially the biggest power player in Alaska's fisheries.

Following the Alaska Legislature's failure to put a subsistence amendment before the public for a vote, the federal government took over fishery management of waters on federal land and waters adjacent to them.

Under Title 8 of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, fish and game resources in the state must be managed first for subsistence purposes, even, if necessary, at the expense of other uses, such as commercial or sport fishing.

Under federal management, the Federal Subsistence Board has the final say on any proposed subsistence regulations. Proposals are submitted for board consideration by the public, and any proposals adopted by the board become law.

Few, if any, changes are expected this year, said Bill Knauer, policy and regulations specialist for the board. Any proposals submitted after the March 27 deadline would not go into effect until 2001, if adopted by the board.

"Only one proposal that I know of has been submitted, and that deals with a stream in Northwest Alaska that's currently open to sport fishing but not for subsistence," Knauer said. "That just doesn't make any sense."

"Like anything with a deadline, nothing will happen until the last minute," Knauer said. "There's no time to go through the full review process this year."

Knauer said he expects, however, that he may be inundated with proposals for the regulatory year 2002.

Knauer was emphatic in his denial that the feds want to manage Alaska's fish.

"Since we took over, the consensus has been that the only logical manager for Alaska's fish is the Alaska Department of Fish and Game," Knauer said.

Bret Huber, executive director of Kenai River Sportfishing Association Inc., speculated that no matter what happens, it won't be easy.

"Any time you have dual management (state and federal) with dual roles and dual goals, there is going to be conflict," Huber said.

"There are more questions out there than answers," he added. "The biggest question is the extra territorial powers (over waters adjacent to federal land)."

Huber said he didn't think the subsistence board would tinker with the fisheries much this first year. Even when the board does take action, Huber said, it may be subject to legal action.

"If subsistence users feel that they're not getting their fair share, they can take it to court," Huber said.

Deal said if the sport fisheries were shut down in favor of subsistence users, it could deal a crippling blow to businesses serving visiting anglers, who often must make their reservations a year in advance.

Karl Kircher, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association said he agreed with Huber that not much will happen this first year under federal management. Next year, however, he expects the board will be forced to come to grips with what Huber referred to as "extraterritoriality."

"The problem needs to be addressed because it crosses all user-group boundaries," Kircher said.

Kircher speculated that the federal government will dangle a large sum of operating money in front of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to run the fisheries, while reserving the right to veto any decision it doesn't like.

Knauer said federal funds would, indeed, be made available to "fill significant data gaps" in the scientific body of knowledge about Alaska's fisheries.

"This year, we are likely to pick up the funding for data gaps and find areas where there are needs and conflicts (with subsistence management)," Knauer said.

Another wild card that may emerge in the subsistence fisheries debate is the Kenaitze tribe's proposal that the whole Kenai Peninsula be declared subsistence-eligible. The board is scheduled to meet in Kenai March 1 to discuss the proposal.

The peninsula with its "big box" grocers and good roads has thus far been considered too urban to need blanket subsistence privileges, other than those that are deemed "customary and traditional" for small Native groups.

Thus far, four out of the five subsistence-eligible communities in the Kenai Peninsula Borough are off the road system. These include Seldovia, Nanwalek, Port Graham and Tyonek. The lone subsistence-eligible community on the road system is Ninilchik, approximately 45 miles south of Soldotna on the Sterling Highway.

"(Anyone) will tell you that if you have access to grocery stores, you can buy your food a lot cheaper than you can gather it," Knauer said.

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