University of Alaska President Mark Hamilton has committed to a long-term study of Alaska salmon issues, despite the furor from commercial fishers who fear a study favoring sport fishers.
"The university isn't going to come out with a study that advocates anything, " he said. "They're going to say, 'Here are some considerations. Here is some historical information that is available. Here are some studies ongoing. Let's make informed decisions about things."
The university is interested in a generic study that could include sport-fishing issues, he said, but it has not yet determined specific topics to cover or how much to spend.
"We need to scope out what people are interested in, what needs to be done first, who we need to engage. That includes other agencies and research institutions," he said.
Economist Gunnar Knapp of the university's Institute of Social and Economic Research is to lead the study. He said the first step will be a report on the major issues surrounding Alaska salmon.
"It's to help people get some perspective, because a lot of these issues are really statewide," he said.
Commercial fishers have market problems, and some salmon runs are in severe decline, he said. There are questions of what kinds of sport fishing Alaskans want to develop.
"There are problems about do we want more guides or less guides?" Knapp said. "There are allocation issues in Cook Inlet and the Copper River. There are issues about hatcheries and salmon farming."
People across Alaska are talking about a buyback of commercial salmon fishing permits, and not always in connection with allocation disputes, he said.
"People are talking about buying back permits, what it would cost and how it would affect the fishermen who are left," he said. "These are complicated questions. We're not interested in rubber-stamping anything. Hopefully, the role the university can play is helping people to understand the complex nature of things."
Cook Inlet commercial fishers were outraged by an Anchorage Daily News report in early August that with $500,000 from Phillips Alaska Inc. and BP, the university would conduct a variety of economic studies, including one exploring, "What would happen if the upper Cook Inlet commercial fishery were bought out, closed up, finished?"
The story said sport fishing advocate Bob Penney, whom many commercial fishers see as a driving force behind Board of Fisheries allocations of Cook Inlet salmon from commercial to recreational fisheries, wrote Hamilton to suggest that the university look into buybacks.
"Hamilton, a personal guest of Penney's at the recent Kenai River Classic salmon habitat fund-raiser on the Kenai River, said the university had already planned this research at the urging of lawmakers before Penney wrote his letter," the story said.
Hamilton, ISER economists and representatives of Phillips and BP traveled Aug. 16 to Kenai to meet with commercial fishers. Oil company representatives emphasized that their contributions to the university had no strings, and the university would decide how to spend them.
Knapp said he was not surprised by comments he heard at the meeting.
"I heard a lot of commercial fishermen who were very upset at the impression they'd been given that the university was going to undertake a very one-sided study which potentially would be very damaging to their industry.
"I'd say the original story conveyed only a tiny part of a bigger picture. The original story was very much out of context," he said.
"An analysis of the economic value of (the) Cook Inlet commercial fishery" was one of many studies Hamilton proposed in an Aug. 7 press release. Other topics ranged from the air cargo industry to the future of Native corporations in economic development.
"We had this whole series of items, and people focused on this one," Hamilton said.
He said the proposal to study a buyout of the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery actually came from Kenai River Sport Fishing Inc. The July 9 letter, signed by Penney and KRSFA chairman Rik Bucy, said one need only consider the last 20 years to predict the economic health of commercial fishing 10 years into the future.
"At the very best, it might remain at today's level, but today's facts would tend to point to a continuing downward spiral," Penney and Bucy wrote.
It has become difficult for commercial fishers to earn an annual income during their 30- to 60-day fishery, and it may be in their interest to consider selling out at today's values rather than those of the future, they wrote.
"Such a buyout would not take place without the strong support of the commercial fishery. If it were to happen, they must be fairly compensated for their loss of income and lifestyle," they wrote. "... We are not advocating that such a buyout should be done, but do strongly support a study that would explore the 'if' and the 'why,' the costs and social impacts."
Hamilton said it was a detailed proposal.
"The letter went through the whole deal -- valuation, social impact, habitat, salmon escapement control, source of funding, legislation, impact on processors. The origin was what scared everybody, but it wasn't a completely ridiculous thought. Nor was it the first thought," he said. "... Gunnar Knapp had contacted me a year before and again in March on a study on the much larger scale, the much larger issue on which we're now appropriately focused: commercial salmon fisheries, options for change."
The study should include sport fishing issues, he said.
Knapp said economists will focus on the issues where the university can make the greatest contributions.
"We'll decide (which issues) only after consulting with different user groups across the state. Only then will we decide if there is a strong interest in the kind of study the Daily News article described. We may or may not do a study of a buyout in Cook Inlet or a buyout in commercial fishing," he said. " ... What a university can do is, not get some result that someone has bought, but take an independent look at the issues."
The university will post the latest news about the study at www.iser.uaa.alaska .edu/projects/salmon on the Internet.
Economists are very interested in users' ideas, Knapp said.
"But ultimately, we'll decide what to study. It's not a vote, but we want to hear from people," he said.
Bob Merchant, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial fishing group, remained wary.
"I don't want the university to get sucked into these political fights. I think that's where Penney wants to go -- just another ally on his side," he said.
At the Aug. 16 meeting, Merchant said, university economists raised the issue of allocation and suggested studying the highest and best use of the resource. Those are political questions that the Board of Fisheries and the Legislature should decide, he said.
He said Knapp did not mention cultural issues or the future of salmon runs and the economy. He questioned the social and economic information the university wants to add to the debate.
"That's political. That's someone sitting around, smoking a cigar and saying the best thing we can do with Cook Inlet is turn it into a sport fishery," he said.
It's no coincidence that sport fishers propose such studies when commercial fishers face troubled markets and dismal runs, he said.
"Where would this study have gone in 1987 or 1988, when this industry kicked $92 million into the peninsula economy? It would have gone nowhere," he said. "They sit around and wait for market conditions. This is Penney's game. He wants to do a slam-dunk. Plus, he's got the governor in his pocket, and this governor is going to be out of office in a year."
Penney declined to comment.
Bucy said the association's letter called for nothing more than an impartial study, because, now, there are no numbers anyone can agree on to measure the economic impact of the recreational and commercial fisheries.
"We asked the university to consider sociological and lifestyle issues, because we fully realize that's part of people's lifestyle -- just as it's part of my lifestyle to dig clams and catch sport fish.
"My lifestyle should be considered just as their lifestyle should be considered," he said.
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