Kenai River king salmon catch-and-release restrictions will almost certainly be delayed one year, following a special meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.
The board voted 5-4 Friday to discuss at the board's June 16 meeting establishing an effective date for the regulations to go into effect. The move allows the board to consider putting the regulations off for a year, an idea first suggested by board vice chair Dan Coffey of Anchorage.
Voting in favor of the plan were board members Ed Dersham, Russell Nelson, Grant Miller and Dan Coffey. Virgil Umphenour, Larry Engel and John White voted no.
Coffey said Friday that he was concerned with the level of negative public comment he'd heard since the board passed the new regulations in February. He said he thought the board may have done a disservice to area residents by not giving enough notice to the public that the board was considering the new regulations.
"I'm convinced we were deficient in the practical notice aspect of this," Coffey said.
However, other board members placed the blame on the state Legislature and the public itself.
"I think we're engaging in a bad process," said board member John White of Bethel.
"There was notice. Yes, we were not meeting on the Kenai Peninsula ... (but) people should have been involved in the process then," White said.
"This is just plain bad precedent," he continued.
Coffey said he was not proposing that the regulations be repealed. Instead, he wants to give the public more time to understand the new rules.
In February, the board passed regulations that imposed a so-called "slot limit" on early-run Kenai king salmon. The limit would have forced anglers to release any king measuring between 40 and 55 inches. Additionally, between June 11 and June 30, only kings longer than 55 inches could be kept.
The board hoped to protect the largest Kenai kings, the "5-ocean," seven-year-old behemoths that the Kenai is famous for. However, area sport fishers have loudly protested the regulation, saying it takes away their right to fish for food.
Board member Virgil Umphenour of Fairbanks was also upset the regulations were being reviewed. He said he didn't understand why, if restrictions can be placed on Tanana River gillnet fishing to protect large king salmon, they can't also be imposed on Kenai River sport fishing.
"Why can't we protect a large king salmon in the sport fishery in the same manner?" Umphenour asked.
A glitch in the state bureaucracy may have caused at least one board member to vote in favor of delaying the regulations. The board heard from a state legal expert who said, because the new regulations are still under review at the state Department of Law, they are currently unenforceable. Following the review, the regulations must be signed by the lieutenant governor and undergo a 30-day waiting period. That means that even if the regulations were signed tomorrow, they would not go into effect until mid-June.
Board member Grant Miller of Sitka said he was uneasy with the precedent the vote set, but he voted yes because of the potential uncertainty arising from the timing of the ruling.
"To me, the crux of the matter is imposition of new regulations midseason," Miller said.
The vote effectively means the Kenai River will operate under 2001 regulations, at least until June 16, when the board will meet to take up the issue again.
Also on the agenda Friday was a proposal to schedule a meeting to discuss regulations passed last year that cut the limit on saltwater king salmon bag limits. The board changed the bag limit from two saltwater kings per day to five per year in Cook Inlet, Kodiak and Resurrection Bay.
The regulations were unpopular with Homer and Kodiak fishers, who favored a plan that would require anglers to record their saltwater king catch.
However, the board voted not to schedule talks on the regulations, choosing to stay within the framework of the normal Board of Fisheries process.
Following the votes, board chair Ed Dersham took the opportunity to register his displeasure with the Legislature for failing to vote on recent Board of Fisheries appointees. Dersham singled out Kenai Peninsula lawmakers for the Legislature's failure to vote on the governor's appointments, saying peninsula lawmakers "orchestrated" the controversy.
"All the appointments would have been beneficial not only to the Kenai Peninsula, but the whole state," Dersham said.
He said he was angry the Legislature had started such a conflict with the board.
"This is going to go on for years. I'm very upset."
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