Salmon restrictions prompt legal battle

Posted: Tuesday, June 13, 2000

JUNEAU (AP) -- As king salmon fishing cutbacks in Southeast Alaska take hold, charter boat operators continue who cater mostly to out-of-state tourists continue their challenge this week to restrictions that hit them harder than commercial fishermen or local sport anglers.

The fight playing out in state court is merely the latest skirmish in an ongoing multi-front war over who gets to catch the prized king salmon, also known as the chinook.

Over the years, the fish have pitted Alaska against Canada, Washington and Oregon, sport anglers against commercial fishermen, and now the charter industry against the state.

''Nothing this discriminatory has happened in the past,'' said Mike Bethers, a charter captain and board member of the Alaska Sportfish Council, which is suing to block rules that limit when and where anglers fishing from chartered boats may keep kings.

Charter operators said such restrictions would kill businesses built on years of satisfied anglers. A state Superior Court judge refused to grant a restraining order last week, but a motion for a temporary injunction is scheduled for a hearing on Wednesday.

The sport season for kings is in full swing now. Dented aluminum skiffs full of locals and cabin cruisers laden with tourists troll slowly among the forested islands of the Inside Passage, waiting for the screaming reel that can signal a fish weighing more than 50 pounds.

But a low forecast for the total number of salmon available for both sport and commercial fishing prompted the Alaska Department of Fish and Game last month to cut the daily limit from two fish to one and the annual limit for non-Alaskans from four fish to two.

On June 3, the department increased restrictions on tourists -- banning nonresident fishermen and all fishermen on charter boats from taking kings on Wednesdays through the end of July or any king salmon in the months of August and September.

The cutbacks stem from policies adopted this year by the Alaska Board of Fisheries, an appointed panel that oversees the contentious arena of fish politics.

''One of the objectives was to minimize restrictions on resident anglers not fishing from charter vessels,'' Rob Bentz, regional management coordinator for the Department of Fish and Game, said of the board's directives.

Bethers said the cuts will fall hardest on charter operators and lodges in remote areas, where no hatchery fish are available to supplement ''treaty kings'' -- fish governed by the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

''Guys in those areas don't have any options and they're hurting more,'' Bethers said in a cellular phone interview as the Silver King chugged slowly through Fritz Cove near Juneau.

That pain comes from a twist in last year's agreement to revise the lapsed treaty. Before the new agreement, yearly wrangling over fish allocations between Canada and the United States delayed the work of a committee of scientists from both countries that calculates the total abundance of kings on the Pacific coast -- a number used to set Alaska's quota.

The Department of Fish and Game splits that quota according to long-standing state policy. Commercial net fishermen get a small allocation off the top, then commercial trollers and sport fishermen -- including charter operators -- split the rest 80-20.

The delay tended to favor sport fishermen because the prime sport season for kings was nearly over by the time the abundance figure was calculated, Bentz said. The main commercial season begins later -- in July.

Fishing under the standard 2-fish limit, the sport fishermen sometimes exceeded their quota before it was even set.

''Last year the sport fishery took approximately 27 percent of the total number available for sport and commercial fisheries,'' said Bentz.

But the new treaty agreement let the scientists finish their work more quickly, and fish managers had the abundance number in hand weeks earlier. ''Once we knew what our 20 percent allocation was for this year, we realized it was going to require about a 40 percent cut from last year's harvest,'' Bentz said.

For commercial trollers the cuts are a welcome change from past years, when the excess sport fishery came out of the commercial quota.

''That charter fleet is growing at such an aggressive pace, they have got to do something to protect both resident anglers and trollers,'' said Dale Kelley, executive director of the Alaska Trollers Association. ''Everybody was going to have to take some sort of share of the pain which the troll fleet has borne for a number of years.''

But for Bethers and other charter operators, the new rules are an argument for changing the formula that allocates fish.

Is it fair, he asks, to allocate 80 percent to 1,200 commercial trollers and 20 percent to 70,000 sport fishermen?

''When we have a low abundance year, 20 percent isn't enough,'' Bethers said. ''This is a common property public resource.''

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