Emphasis on biology urged

Fish debate gets new participant

Posted: Sunday, September 17, 2000

There is a new player in Cook Inlet fishery and subsistence politics.

The Kenai Peninsula Resource Management Coalition passed its draft mission statement to Alaska Sen. Frank Murkowski and members of the Federal Subsistence Board at an August hearing -- the same one in which Murkowski asked the board to reconsider its determination that even the peninsula's largest communities are rural and qualify for the federal subsistence priority.

"Several members of the subsistence board wanted to come down. We'll probably invite them to the (coalition's) October meeting," said Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly member Jack Brown of Nikiski, who organized the coalition last spring. "We're hoping we'll have a meeting with the governor within the next six months."

Murkowski's office provided a copy of the coalition's draft mission statement, which begins, "The citizens of the Kenai Peninsula only support historical, traditional, cultural and spiritual use of the fish and wildlife resources here on the Kenai Peninsula."

It advocates subsistence as the top priority for fish and game management, followed by commercial fishing, then recreational use. It puts local recreational users before out-of-state visitors.

"Both Kenai Peninsula Natives and local non-Native subsistence users and commercial fishermen have been primarily the customary, historically and traditional users of the wild resources since prior to Alaska becoming a state," it says. "All of those users need the resource to maintain their way of life and their use maintains a stable and viable community, both economically and socially.

"This leaves ample time for both personal-use dipnetters and recreational users of the resource and grants resident recreational users a privilege over non-resident recreational users."

The coalition does not want modern uses to overshadow traditional uses, said member Bob Merchant, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

Brown said the primary goal is to protect wild resources.

"I think the reason I called the meeting was my frustration with the Board of Fisheries meetings and hearing Anchorage-based groups speaking for peninsula residents," he said. "Various organizations filled primarily with outside residents were speaking for sport fishermen. A lot of individuals and groups went before the Board of Fisheries that didn't seem to have a consensus message."

He said several of his constituents asked if there was a way to bring sport fishers, commercial fishers and Natives together. So, he invited representatives to meet and seek common ground. The requirement was a commitment "to put aside your personal agenda and think about what's best for the resource and what's best for the community," he said.

"What we want to do is have a residents' say in what's going on," he said. "It should be a diverse group that can make recommendations to the Board of Fisheries, the Federal Subsistence Board and lawmakers."

He said about 20 people have participated regularly. Among those, he listed Joe Malatesta, a legal worker who has advocated for commercial fishing; Richard Segura, president of Kenai Natives Association Inc.; Jim Segura, president of Salamatof Native Association Inc.; James Showalter, a commercial fisher and former chair of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe; former assembly member Debra Holle, a sport fisher previously connected to commercial fishing; Bill Grimm, a sport fisher; Karl Kircher, executive director of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman's Association; Bob Merchant, president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association; Dave Martin, a commercial driftnet fisher; Robert Fulton and Joe Stanford, sport fishers; Hal Becker and Tim O'Brien, personal use and subsistence fishers.

Conspicuously missing were leaders of prominent sport fishers' and guides' groups.

"We wanted a consensus working group," Brown said. "I think people wanted to get a little further along before we invited potential controversy to the group."

However, he said, guides are not excluded, as long as they agree to put aside personal agendas and work for the good of the resource and the community. He said several guides rejected his early invitations to participate.

"I think various members of the group have invited guides," he said. "Personally, I haven't gone out of my way to make sure they were at the meetings."

Powell said he has approached fishing guides.

"We're not against the guiding industry," he said. "We're against the destruction of the riverbanks and the resource by whoever does it."

Brown said the coalition still is the most diverse group he has seen discuss peninsula issues. When before have sport, personal-use and subsistence fishers, Native groups and commercial fishers, sat down together? he asked.

"And yes, we will expand our group to include all the players in the game," he said.

Jim Golden, on the board of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he had not heard of the coalition or seen its mission statement and could not comment on that.

"They are apparently organizing and they are concerned about the resource, and that's great," he said.

Brett Huber, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Joe Connors, president of the Kenai River Professional Guides Association, and Joe Hanes, guides association board member, could not be reached.

The coalition's mission statement advocates management for maximum sustained yield, which Powell said produces the greatest abundance for access by all user groups.

Speaking for himself and not for the coalition, he said biologists believe a Kenai River spawning escapement of 300,000 to 600,000 sockeyes produces large future runs. However, the Board of Fisheries has set higher goals that can overcrowd rearing lakes and hurt production.

"If you put a million fish in the river, you're going to get 1 million or 1.5 million back," he said. "That leaves plenty of fish for the in-river (sport) fishery, but not much for commercial fishermen."

The draft mission statement says, "The users involved with development of this plan are trying to solve all resource allocations for both state and federal lands and waters.

"If all local areas will follow this lead, we shall save both governments money and do away with troublesome boards and political influences regarding the management of wild resources."

Powell said the coalition is arguing against the political influences, not the boards. High-powered bureaucrats, not local residents, dominate the Federal Subsistence Board, he said.

"Biology needs to be first," he said. "The boards should be made up of unbiased individuals that take biological information -- not government employees and politicians. I think everyone would agree that we don't want the head of the Bureau of Indian Affairs in Washington, D.C., managing our fisheries, and we don't want political appointees on the Board of Fisheries. The board is ignoring the biologists."

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