Fishers face uncertain future

Allocation controversy expected to continue

Posted: Friday, July 20, 2001

The future of Cook Inlet salmon boils down to two basic questions. How many will there be, and who is going to get them?

People will answer the first, said Robert Ruffner, director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.

"I see a healthy watershed now, with some signs of impact from the people that live here and the people that visit," he said. "It's going to be up to us to maintain it.

"We can't kid ourselves that what happened in the Lower 48 won't happen here, if we're not diligent and we don't keep up with it."

He sees no solution to the perennial battle over who gets the fish.

"It's always in a state of flux," he said.

Subsistence users, commercial fishers and a growing crowd of recreational fishers have interests in the fish.

"The demographics of the people are always going to change, and with the changes, there will be changes in allocation," Ruffner said.

"What we can hope for is that all these groups will set aside those issues and make sure we do what we can to make sure salmon have good water, shelter and food."

Biologist Ken Tarbox, recently retired after 20 years with the Alaska Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna, said rapid urbanization threatens habitat in the Kenai and Susitna river drainages.

"You've seen it in Anchorage, where salmon streams were degraded to the point where they're just hatchery stocks. Now, they're trying to make them whole, but that's a fool's game. We've seen that in the Pacific Northwest," he said.

Cook Inlet salmon are relatively healthy, now, he said.

"It will take the agencies and the public keeping on top of it to minimize habitat degradation," he said. "But there hasn't been a will to do that."

Faced with the choice of enacting a 50-foot habitat protection zone or a 100-foot habitat protection zone along the banks of the Kenai River, the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly chose the 50-foot zone, even though all the science suggests a minimum of 100 feet is required to do much real good, Tarbox said.

"The riverbanks are being eroded by boat wakes. We know what's happening. But instead of addressing that, the agencies choose to do more studies," he said. "We don't have any good land-use planning or watershed planning. We know from our experience in the Pacific Northwest that you need a watershed approach to do it. But nobody is doing it."

Alaska State Parks and the Kenai River Special Management Area Advisory Board wrote their Kenai River management plan from a socioeconomic perspective, he said, "but it's a hodgepodge plan, and fishery values figure very low."

There is a philosophical problem, he said.

"It's a philosophy that we can use the resource to the max, and all we have to do is minimize the damage," he said.

People build stairways, fishwalks and boat ramps, he said, but those are all geared toward development, not setting critical habitat aside.

"It's not to have limited use or some upper end on use," he said.

Ted Wellman, chair of the KRSMA board and vice chair of the Kenai River Property Owners Association, which represents owners of private land, strongly disagreed with Tarbox.

"I think, frankly, that concept is an insult to the many private property owners and organizations that have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars to protect habitat," he said.

The original proposal for the borough ordinance called for a 300-foot habitat protection zone along the river, he said. That would have precluded all development on many private lots.

Then chair of the property owners group, Wellman worked for a compromise.

He said attitudes certainly have improved over the last 50 years.

"From what I see of people taking care of the habitat and protecting the river, that's probably better than ever," he said. "When I was young, the only equipment people used to develop along the river was a bulldozer."

Back then, people cleared right to the riverbanks, he said.

Wellman said he does not share Tarbox' pessimism.

"We still have some problems. The big one is too much commercial development along the river corridor. I'd think the next step should be some comprehensive zoning by the borough. The key is to get zoning in place so we can prevent development that skins the vegetation from the banks and prevents dense development."

Robin West, manager of the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, said the outlook is rosy.

"It's easy to find things you'd like to see different, but if you look at the kinds of returns we have and the technology we have for management, the battles are going to be over allocation," he said. "We're going to have fish for the future. The bulk of the Kenai River habitat is supported by the refuge. If you look at the tributaries where fish spawn -- Russian Lake, the Moose River, the Killey River, Funny River -- that's all in the refuge."

On the Kasilof River, which also produces big sockeye runs, Tustumena Lake and its tributaries also lie within the refuge, he said.

Rep. Ken Lancaster, R-Soldotna, said he is optimistic -- he has to be to keep fighting for the river.

"I started with the first habitat project on Soldotna Creek in 1990. We just started work on the 10th project," he said.

On the other hand, he said, his bill to add 8,000 acres of habitat and recreation land to KRSMA, the state park that encompasses much of the Kenai River, has not passed the Legislature.

"It seems to be the right thing to do, and it seemed to be the right thing to do in the House," he said.

But the bill stalled on opposition from a few senators interested in developing the land for private cabins, he said.

"I think we can do a better job of educating people on the importance of respecting and protecting habitat," he said.

Answers in the allocation fight are no easier to find.

Former legislator and Borough Mayor Don Gilman said he agreed to a brief stint as president of the Kenai River Sportfishing Associa-tion because "I thought I might be able to get sport and commercial fishermen to kiss and make up a little."

That was wishful thinking, he said.

"My intent was to at least get people to the table to talk, to see if they had some kind of common ground," he said.

But he never even convinced the two sides to meet.

"Nothing. No table. No dialogue," he said. "... You can't devise a way for those people to get along. The history throughout the U.S. West Coast salmon runs is that sport fishermen win those battles. The numbers are there for sport fishing. The vote is there for sport fishing."

The fish fight was on when Gilman was elected to the Legislature in 1981.

"The issues of regulation, the Kenai River, guides, the size of boats were big in the Legislature," he said. "We're talking about a 25-year battle. It goes back to when the Magnuson Act passed, the 200-mile limit went in and the fish came back. Then, they started fighting over them. The future is (that) the trend that started in the 1980s will continue. More fish will be allocated to sport and personal-use fishing."

Soldotna setnetter Karl Kircher's question is "Why?"

Sport fishers obviously have done well despite the presence of commercial fishing, and now, State Parks is beginning to question how many more anglers can fit on the Kenai River, he said.

"I'd like to see groups like the Kenai River Sportfishing Associa-tion do more on 'How can we safely handle what we have,'" he said. "Is putting more fish in there going to do any good?"

Gilman sees no end to the allocation disputes.

"There are too many interests, and the politics of fish is the politics of greed," he said.

Before the war between sport and commercial fishers, there was a war between setnetters and driftnetters.

"They went at it tooth and nail before the Board of Fisheries," he said.

Cook Inlet commercial fishing has a future, but probably not one where a fisher can earn a living from salmon alone, he said.

"There's a need for commercial fishing. You can't slug the rivers with a lot of fish like happened with the pink salmon last year. Those fish should have been harvested. But what commercial fishing looks like probably will be different from what it looks like now," he said. "I think there will be, in the next 10-year cycle, a real push to buy back (commercial salmon fishing) permits, probably beach sites."

Setnets catch more king salmon than driftnets and it is easier to focus the drift fleet on harvesting particular stocks, he said.

Gilman said the buyback would be voluntary.

"I don't think there will be any eminent domain used," he said. "How the money would be raised to do that, I don't know. I think the sport fishermen should pay a good amount of it."

The money for a buyback could come from fishing license fees or some other special fees, he said.

Jeff Fox, area biologist for the Alaska Division of Commercial Fisheries in Soldotna, said the limited-entry law includes provisions for buying back permits, but the Legislature has never appropriated any money to do it.

Some Cook Inlet commercial fishers have been trying for several years to organize a lawsuit alleging that growing restrictions on commercial salmon fishing constitute an illegal taking of permit-holders' property.

Nikiski driftnet fisher Larry Van Sky said the February 2002 Board of Fisheries meeting on Cook Inlet may determine whether commercial fishing here remains viable. The board already has written management plans for Cook Inlet king, coho and sockeye salmon, he said. Now, it's poised to address pinks and chums.

"When they get done, that's when we'll know where this fishery is going. I don't expect them to relax fishing time for us. I don't think it's the board's or the state's objective to maintain an economically viable commercial fishery," he said.

Bob King, press secretary to Gov. Tony Knowles, said competition from farmed salmon, not regulation, is the main cause of the commercial fishing crisis. Though King expects that competition to produce changes in commercial fishing, he expects the industry to remain an important part of the economy, he said.

Don Giles, president of Icicle Seafoods, said he expects Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries will survive, but, ultimately, there will be fewer processors and fewer fishers.

Giles said he does not believe commercial fishers can survive with present economic conditions, but the picture will change as fishers leave the industry.

"Eventually, we'll get to the right number," he said.

There already are signs of attrition. Last Thursday, just 380 of the upper inlet's 585 driftnet permit holders made deliveries, Fox said.

Rob Williams, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association, which represents setnetters, said he is trying to focus his attention where he can make a positive difference, as in the effort to develop and market a quality brand of Cook Inlet salmon.

"The politics in the area, with the governor and the Board of Fisheries, is out of our hands. All we can do is plead our case," he said.

But commercial fishers can develop better markets and prices with a Cook Inlet brand, he said. Copper River fishers did it.

Even in allocation disputes, the answers may lie with the people.

"I'd certainly hope that our vision would be driven by the people of the Kenai Peninsula," King said.

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