Inlet fishing sparks lawsuit

Group says state unfairly limits fishing access

Posted: Friday, November 04, 2005

After years of mounting frustration over what they consider increasing limited access to the waters in which they fish, Cook Inlet commercial fisherman have asked the court to intercede.

A complaint for declaratory judgment filed in the state Superior Court in Anchorage on Oct. 25 asks for two things, according to Arnold “Chuck” Robinson, the Soldotna attorney representing the fishermen.

“We’re asking the court to declare whether or not (Commercial Fishery Entry Commission) permits are property and whether or not these regulations that the Board of Fisheries has developed over a series of years, starting about 1996, have resulted in a taking of property because they have severely restricted access of the permits,” Robinson said.

Approximately 400 Cook Inlet fishermen are represented by the action, Robinson said. The Commercial Fishery Entry Commission was established by the state in 1974. It administers the commercial fishery entry permit system, awarding qualified users with permits designated for specific gear types in specific areas of the state.

John McCombs of Ninilchik, vice president of the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund and a 30-year Cook Inlet commercial gillnet fisherman, said the action dates back to the original signing of the state’s Comprehensive Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Management Plan in 1978.

According to the complaint, the purpose of the plan was to allocate salmon in the upper inlet among commercial drift- and set-gillnet fishermen and recreational in-river anglers based on priority fishing time. The plan mandated specific times be managed primarily for commercial use and others primarily for recreational use.

The fishermen contend they made long-term investments in the Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery, including the purchase of permits, vessels and fishing gear, based on these regulations. But, they argue, changes in regulations made by the Board of Fisheries have since limited the commercial fishing season and restricted permit holders from operating gear in traditionally fished areas of the inlet.

“What they’ve taken is not the fish. That has to be understood,” said Steve Vanek of Ninilchik, who has been drift-gillnet fishing in Cook Inlet since 1966 and is a board member of the CIFF. “They’re taking access to the water.

That’s what we’re losing. In order to allocate fish to some other user group, they have to keep us from fishing.”

Vanek said that in the 30 years he has attended Board of Fisheries meetings, he has seen the board gut the original purpose of the permits.

“The promise of limited entry was to have a professional fishery that was viable and a person could make a livelihood out of,” Vanek said. “I have been very active in attending Board of Fisheries meetings and trying to preserve the fishery we’ve had here, and all attempts through that means with the Board of Fisheries have failed. The last resort is in the court.”

“They implied we had a future,” McCombs said. “Most people that bought into the fishery expected to participate and to make money over the years, not to have it whittled away year after year.”

Lee Martin of Homer, who began commercial gillnet fishing in Cook Inlet in 1960, recently joined the other fishermen who have contributed financially to this court action.

“Being born and raised here, I thought I was aware of the inner workings (of the Board of Fisheries), but I have just been woken up, at age 60, that the only way that we’ll ever have any input or control over the Board of Fisheries administration will be if we have some accountability and one way of getting that — the only way that I can see — is a financial accountability,” Martin said.

Information provided by the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission reflects that a drift-gillnet permit in Cook Inlet had an estimated value of $30,000 in March 1978. The value peaked at $207,571 in July 1990, hit a low of $11,300 in November 2002 and rose to $38,300 in September 2005.

A set-gillnet permit for the inlet had an estimated value of $7,636 in March 1978. That soared to $102,000 in August 1990, dropped to $7,000 in July 2004 and was estimated to have a value of $10,900 in September 2005.

According to Doug Bowen of Alaska Boats and Permits in Homer, fish farming also has caused a change in the value of salmon permits in Cook Inlet and elsewhere in Alaska.

“All salmon permits within the state have been negatively impacted by farmed salmon,” Bowen said.

Calls to Diana Cote, executive director of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and Lance Nelson, senior assistant to the state attorney general, were not returned by press time.

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