Against the current

Commercial fishers cry foul at recent 'fish politics'

Posted: Wednesday, July 18, 2001

It seems impossible anymore to talk to an upper Cook Inlet commercial fisher without hearing how Gov. Tony Knowles and his Board of Fisheries appointments have destroyed the industry.

"Forty percent of our historical fishery has been reallocated from us to somebody else," said Bob Merchant, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, whose membership includes roughly 220 dritnetters. "I've always heard that the income is in renewable resources. This governor apparently didn't think that meant us or our industry. ... The government policy now is to replace commercial fishing with tourism. ... The governor's policy that he has carried out through the fish board has been the destruction of a local economy."

Press Secretary Bob King said Knowles has no specific goals for Cook Inlet. He simply appoints board members who have solid backgrounds in all aspects of fisheries.

"He tries to get a board willing to look at all uses and come up with balanced management plans that protect all species," King said.

There always have been allocation disputes, particularly in Cook Inlet, because of its location along the road system, but the board has addressed those fairly, he said.

"The board will allocate so there always will be commercial fishing in Cook Inlet," he said.

The real challenge is the flood of farmed fish, which has driven the prices many Alaska fishers receive for sockeye salmon below the cost of catching them, he said.

"But that's not a Board of Fisheries issue. That's a market issue," he said.

Many commercial fishers blame the influence of Anchorage businessman and sport fishing advocate Bob Penney for their hard times.

"I always was an optimist until (Knowles) came along. That gave Penney the power to do what he wanted," said Doug Blossom of Ninilchik, a setnetter for more than 50 years. "Penney has always been our enemy."

King said Knowles and Penney have been friends for a long time.

"But to say that means Penney gets his way all the time is a stretch," he said.

Knowles has sought Penney's help in several arenas, King said, and Penney has testified before the board. But after appointing Board of Fisheries members, Knowles has little influence over their decisions, King said.

Penney said he is one of the toughest foes anyone could have.

"Because I'm a zealot. When I see something wrong, I work to correct it," he said.

And in Cook Inlet, he definitely sees something wrong.

"There's 1,400 commercial fishing permits in Cook Inlet and 240,000 sport fishing licenses that fish those same runs," Penney said. "The fact that Cook Inlet is adjacent to 60 percent of the state's population says one thing -- eventually, the public wins."

The Kenai River has produced the 10 largest king salmon ever caught, and allowing commercial nets to take fish like that is like cutting giant redwoods for firewood, he said. The Kenai is the only place in the world where anglers can drive to fishing like that, he said.

Penney said commercial fishers take 90 percent of the Cook Inlet salmon catch, and he won't stop pushing until the public gets a fair share. That might be half, he said.

Larry Marsh, assistant area biologist for the Sport Fish Division in Soldotna, said sport fishers take about three-quarters of Kenai River cohos and half of Kenai River kings. But the split with commercial fishers is less clear for Cook Inlet as a whole, including the Northern District, the inlet's western shore and Kachemak Bay.

For sockeyes, which far outnumber other species, commercial fishers generally take a healthy majority. But dipnetters generally take about 100,000 sockeyes per year, and so do anglers in the Kenai River. That could be a significant fraction of the total in years like 2000, when the commercial catch was just 1.3 million sockeyes.

Meanwhile, commercial fishers say Penney's argument is just a smoke screen. They say that recreational fishers with dipnets and poles could never take half a run of 6 million sockeyes. The real story is about fishing guides, they say.

It's the tourism industry that argues allocation at the Board of Fisheries, not the guy who fishes with his family, said Kenai driftnetter Drew Sparlin. The losers -- in addition to commercial fishing families -- are the peninsula residents the crowds have driven from the Kenai and Russian rivers.

Penney said it's not the guide who catches the fish.

"He's just the driver. My grandson catches the fish, and he lives here," Penney said.

Soldotna setnetter Karl Kircher said sport fishers already were grumbling about the kings and cohos when he started fishing in 1979. Penney already was part of the debate.

"Back then, he didn't have the political power," Kircher said. "He was kind of a rogue player, a boisterous kind of a guy plotting and scheming to get rid of us. Then, he got Kenai River Sportfishing Associa-tion together and started working behind the scenes, throwing his money around with the high politics guys. The peak of his power came with this governor."

Anchorage Sen. Loren Leman, a Cook Inlet setnetter, said he thinks Penney was behind Gov. Bill Sheffield's 1983 appointment of Kenai River fishing guide Bix Bonney to the Board of Fisheries.

"I'm sure I was involved, with a lot of other people," Penney said.

Penney said Bonney was the first member of the sport fishing community appointed to the board.

Board meetings grew tumultuous then as new groups competed for Cook Inlet salmon, Leman said.

"Those who had a fishery were concerned about losing it, and the growing guided fishery wanted more," he said. "What started happening was certain groups started looking to own the board and to own the governor so they could own own the board. ... That was the time when the monied interests -- including Bob Penney -- decided, 'We're going to have more of a part in the board.'"

Penney said he entered the fray in 1984, the year he and Bonney founded the Kenai River Sportfishing Association to protest long runs of back-to-back, 24-hour openings for Cook Inlet commercial fishers.

"I had two concerns -- the lack of escapement, and the resource belongs to us all, and we should share it fairly," Penney said. "We mostly protested. We walked around Fish and Game carrying nets and signs. We picketed them because of the continuous commercial openings. Kenai River Sportfishing evolved from three or four of us."

In 1988, Kenai River Sportfishing proposed replacing eastern inlet setnetters with traps on the Kenai River near Sterling and the Kasilof River near the Sterling Highway bridge. The traps would harvest excess sockeyes, and sales of the fish would pay idled setnetters.

"They'd have gotten the same amount of money they did before, but it would have allowed for the proper biological (sockeye) escapement, and it would have allowed the kings to go through, which has always been the biggest bone of contention between sport and commercial fishermen," Penney said.

The plan drew little support from commercial fishers.

"His motive was, it would have put the control of all the fish in one entity. That was the reason for statehood, to get rid of the traps and limited entry," said setnetter Rob Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, which represents setnetters.

The fish trap idea never garnered much support. In 1989, Penney asked the Legislature to lift its moratorium on fish farming so he could build an experimental sockeye farm in Resurrection Bay. In 1990, the Legislature banned fish farming altogether.

In 1992, Kenai River Sportfishing refined its mission, said Brett Huber, its present director.

"The association redirected itself to the effort and identified the top priority to be habitat and the watershed. How do you do it? You need money," he said.

That led to the the Kenai River Classic, the exclusive king tournament that has become the group's biggest fund-raiser. The first Classic in 1994 raised $200,000, Huber said. This year's event, chaired by Knowles and U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, raised more than $1 million and drew four U.S. senators, four members of President Bush's Cabinet and top corporate executives.

Sparlin said that sort of fund-raising allowed the association to bus a crowd of sport fishers from Anchorage to testify at the 1999 Board of Fisheries meeting in Soldotna.

Huber said most of the money -- more than $600,000 last year -- goes for conservation research, to promote responsible fishing practices, and for habitat protection projects, such as the boat launch, boardwalks and stairways recently installed at Swiftwater Park in Soldotna.

"Our projects are to get people to the river without doing damage," he said.

The association also seeks an equitable allocation of fish for the sport-fishing public, he said. It does not lobby, he said, but it does participate in the regulatory process, including Board of Fisheries meetings. Huber said he did not know whether the association bused sport fishers to the 1999 meeting, which was before he became director. But certainly, he said, Kenai River Sportfishing encouraged its members to participate -- just as commercial fishing groups did.

Sparlin said the real purpose of the Classic is for Penney to curry influence with the high and mighty.

"Knowles gets to come ride in the Classic each year. You think he doesn't enjoy rubbing shoulders with some of the most powerful people in Washington, D.C.?" Sparlin asked. "Knowles just appointed Penney to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. (Penney) is the guy who wanted to build a weir across the Kenai River, who wanted to put a dam across the Susitna."

Kircher said Penney has the advantage when it comes to rubbing elbows with powerful people.

"Building a mansion on the banks of the Kenai River and having boats to take them out with is more conducive to bending their ears than going out on the inlet in 10-foot seas in a setnet skiff," he said. "Obviously, Knowles would rather spend an afternoon on the deck drinking cabernet than drinking a bad cup of coffee on the boat with Drew Sparlin."

Knowles' Board of Fisheries appointments include Penney's friend and occasional attorney Dan Coffey, author of the 1995 Fairness in Salmon Harvest (F.I.S.H.) Initiative, which would have given sport, personal-use and subsistence fishers top priority for 5 percent of the projected statewide salmon harvest. Organizers collected more than 20,000 signatures to put it on the ballot. Penney declined to comment on whether he played a role in the campaign.

The initiative made no allocations by species or region. Commercial fishers feared recreational fishers could demand the whole 5 percent in kings and cohos, closing commercial fisheries in popular areas like the Kenai Peninsula.

F.I.S.H. never made the ballot, since the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that natural resources cannot be allocated by initiative.

King said Coffey severed his ties to the initiative when Knowles appointed him to the Board of Fisheries.

"But one of the reasons people had gone to the initiative process at the time is because a bunch of recreational fishers and users of fishery resources felt the board wasn't representing them," he said.

Knowles' other appointments include John White, a Bethel dentist and Kuskokwim driftnet fisher; Grant Miller, a Sitka charter operator and former Southeast commercial fisher; Ed Dersham, a retired drug enforcement agent who now runs an Anchor Point fishing lodge and guide service; and Russell Nelson, a former Bristol Bay commercial fisher turned land manager for Choggiung Ltd., which leases land to fishing lodges.

Gov. Walter Hickel appointed the other two members of the present board: Fairbanks hunting guide Virgil Umphenour, who operates a salmon processing plant and has participated in Tanana River commercial fishing and also in sport and subsistence fishing; and Larry Engel of Palmer, a retired Division of Sport Fish biologist and lobbyist for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

"There isn't one person now on the Board of Fisheries who derives a significant portion of his income from commercial fishing," Sparlin said.

Huber said there has been change under Knowles.

"The board was dominated for years almost solely by commercial fishing," he said. "The board now represents sport fishing, personal use, commercial fishing and subsistence. I think we're seeing balance on the board. The board must be doing something right. Its sustainable fisheries policy has been recognized nationally as one of the best in the world."

Board members appointed by other recent governors also have represented a variety of interests.

Hickel's other appointments included sport-fishing advocates Irving Carlisle, a retired Soldotna accountant, and Ken Wardwell, an Anchorage realtor; Larry Edfelt of Juneau, a retired Fish and Game regulation specialist and charter operator; and Tom Elias, an Anchorage taxidermist. They also included Trefon Angasan Jr., a Bristol Bay driftnetter, Dick Jacobson, a Sand Point seiner; and Kay Andrews, a Southeast gillnetter. Carlisle said Andrews and Wardwell served briefly, but were never confirmed by the Legislature.

Gov. Steve Cowper's appointments included Bud Hodson, who ran a Bristol Bay sport-fishing lodge; Mike Chihuly, a Ninilchik charter captain; Bob Lochman, a retired Kodiak Fish and Wildlife Protection officer; Joe Demmert Jr., a Southeast commercial fisher; Robin Samuelson, a Bristol Bay commercial fisher; John Hanson, a Yukon commercial driftnet fisher; Deborah Lyons, a Southeast commercial troller and oyster farmer; Gary Slaven, a Southeast commercial fisher; Michael Martin, a Kodiak commercial fisher, and Bud Ivey, a Southeast commercial fisher.

Samuelson, who sat on the Board of Fisheries from 1989 to 1992, characterized the present board as "well balanced in the sense that the people know the issues because of their longevity on the board."

Cook Inlet fishers may justifiably question the board's composition, he said.

"But there are seven members on the board, and one member doesn't control the outcome," he said. "When you get into heated debate, it's the public that speaks. The governor may weigh in on the issues, but the public is still the one that sways the board. I think that's still the case."

Samuelson said he does not see the present board as negative to commercial fishers.

"I think this is one of the most conservation-minded boards around. They're going to look at escapement goals and make sure there are enough up the river for a sustainable fishery," he said.

"If that means scaling back the commercial fishery or the sport fishery, this board will do it.

"Every time you go into a Cook Inlet meeting, it's like Ali versus Foreman. Both groups are hardened. There's not much give between the user groups there."

With the big influx of sport fishers, Cook Inlet commercial fishers have their work cut out, he said. Commercial fishers are largely local residents, but tourism is a substantial part of the economy.

"There has to be a balance. Just because it's accessible by road doesn't mean we should get rid of commercial fishing," he said.

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