Suit challenges Chignik salmon co-op

Posted: Tuesday, May 07, 2002

ANCHORAGE (AP) -- Two commercial fishermen have sued the state Board of Fisheries to try to block a plan to divide the sockeye salmon catch at Chignik.

The fishermen say slicing the harvest into roughly equal shares violates the Alaska Constitution and is an abuse of the board's authority.

The lawsuit shows the difficulty state officials face in trying new ideas to improve the poor economics of Alaska's commercial salmon industry. Cutting costs and improving quality are vital for improving Alaska wild salmon's competitiveness against a tide of foreign farmed fish now dominating the market, according to fishing industry analysts and Alaska economists.

The board in January approved a cooperative approach to managing the fishery at Chignik, on the Alaska Peninsula, where about 100 seine boats converge each summer to net prime red salmon. Under the plan, some or all of the boat owners may unite and designate a portion of the fleet to catch the fish.

By agreeing to no longer race each other, some boats could be idled, more care could be taken to keep the fish fresh, and all the fishermen in the co-op, including those who do not fish, would share profits and expenses.

A minority of Chignik fishermen declined to join the co-op. Catch records are held confidential by the state, but it's believed the holdouts are ''highliners,'' fishermen who have traditionally caught more salmon than the average permit holder at Chignik.

Because fishery managers would allocate the co-op a protected share of the salmon returning to Chignik, based on the number of participating boats, a huge chunk of the run would be off-limits to the independent boats. It likely would mean a big reduction in their normal catches.

Longtime Chignik fishermen Dean Anderson and Michael Grunert filed their class-action suit in Superior Court in Juneau. The suit asks the court to declare the board's co-op action invalid. No trial date has been set, but lawyers for the state have until May 25 to respond.

The suit says making a special allocation to the co-op would violate the ''common use'' and ''equal treatment'' clauses of the Constitution's natural resources article.

Lance Nelson, an assistant attorney general who advises the Board of Fisheries, said the board reviewed all the co-op's legal ramifications and the state ''is willing to defend a challenge to the regulation.''

Board chairman Ed Dersham, an Anchor Point sportfishing guide, said he was not surprised the board was sued.

He acknowledged that the co-op plan is novel because it would divide the catch among fishermen using the same type of boats and fishing gear. There are many cases around Alaska in which salmon fisheries are divided by different classes of fishermen, such as those who use boats and those who stretch nets from shore.

The lawsuit notes that Chignik fishermen face higher grocery, fuel and insurance expenses while the value of sockeye salmon has plunged by more than half over the past 10 years. Statewide, salmon fishermen are declaring their industry is in crisis.

The board is willing to try new ideas to help the economics of commercial fishing but it's difficult, Dersham said.

''We made the best determination that we could,'' he said of the Chignik vote. ''Anytime the board ventures into new territory, people want to test it. Now that it's a legal case, until there's a decision, it's totally out of our hands.''

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