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Commercial fishers renew lawsuit effort

Posted: Friday, November 24, 2000

Cook Inlet commercial fishers have revamped an old group for a new try at funding a lawsuit alleging that growing fishery restrictions constitute an illegal taking of permit-holders' property.

"I want to get our fishery saved," said Ninilchik setnetter Doug Blossom, president of the revitalized Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund Inc.

"After 51 years in the fishery, we're losing it. I don't want to lose the fishery. I've got grandkids in the fishery, and they're losing it. That bothers me."

A core of fishers has been trying for years to raise money for a lawsuit through the offices of Fagre and Benson, a Minnesota law firm representing plaintiffs in the Exxon Valdez oil spill civil lawsuit, and Soldotna attorney Chuck Robinson, who also is a setnet fisher.

Joe Malatesta Sr., a legal assistant in Robinson's office and executive director of the Fishermen's Fund, said limited entry salmon permits can be bought and sold and used as collateral. Essentially, they are property, he said, and restrictions the Board of Fisheries has imposed on Cook Inlet commercial salmon fisheries constitute an uncompensated taking of property.

Attorneys say they need $500,000 for the first phase of the case, in which plaintiffs would ask the court to determine whether restrictions on commercial salmon fisheries constitute an uncompensated taking. A second phase would determine actual damages. Organizers have asked Cook Inlet permit holders to contribute $1,256 each toward the $500,000 goal.

Malatesta said 415 fishers have signed contracts to join the suit, but just 145 have contributed the full $1,256. A trust account with the attorneys now contains roughly $180,000, he said. So, commercial fishers have revamped the Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund -- which Blossom said was founded in 1976 to fight issues such as problems with sonar fish counters -- for a new try at raising funds. A Fishermen's Fund meeting Tuesday in Kenai drew about 35 fishers.

Unlike the law firms, the fund can take payments, said treasurer Dave Martin, a Ninilchik driftnet fisher. A permit holder could pay half the $1,256 and work out a payment plan for the rest.

"They can do $100 or whatever," he said. "Just get the ball rolling and get these people that haven't contributed to it to start kicking in."

Malatesta said organizers had sent 1,370 letters in four days inviting permit holders to join. By Tuesday morning, 80 people had paid $10 membership dues, he said, and 34 had agreed to move their lawsuit contributions from the attorneys' trust account to the Fishermen's Fund.

Only holders of Cook Inlet driftnet, setnet and seine permits or federal individual fishing quotas can become voting members, he said. That includes salmon, herring and bottomfish fishers. Anyone who supports commercial fishing can become a nonvoting member.

Malatesta said he has been talking to bankers. If the Fishermen's Fund puts $250,000 in certificates of deposit at 7 percent interest, he said, the earnings would amount to about $15,000 per year.

"If we reach halfway ($250,000), they said they'll loan against that," he said. "We might borrow the whole $500,000. We could use the interest from the CDs a money from pull-tabs to make the loan payments. That's just an idea we threw out."

Martin said the lawsuit will take years. In the meantime, the fund may lobby the Legislature. He and Blossom slammed the Board of Fisheries for imposing restrictions that kept the Department of Fish and Game from allowing commercial fishers -- hurt by dismal sockeye returns -- to harvest this year's bumper run of pinks.

"It's criminal we didn't fish those pink salmon," Blossom said. "We had a disastrous fishing season. We could have made pork and beans for the winter fishing them."

"We need to pass legislation that puts some sideboards on the Board of Fisheries so they have to manage the fisheries biologically for maximum sustained yield, using only the best scientific information available," Martin said.

"We're not doing biological management -- not when you're letting 20 million pinks go unharvested, not when you're taking emergency order authority away from the biologists."

Malatesta said the Fishermen's Fund will keep fishers' contributions for the lawsuit in a separate account and refund them if plans for the lawsuit are abandoned. Other money the Fishermen's Fund raises could fund a war chest to litigate against future assaults on commercial fishing.

Board member Steve Vanek, a Ninilchik driftnet fisher, encouraged holders of halibut IFQs to join the fund. The federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council has recommended creating a subsistence halibut fishery and is considering IFQs for halibut charter skippers, both of which could reduce commercial halibut quotas.

Vanek said the North Pacific council hopes to allocate halibut through local area management plans, and it has turned to the state Board of Fisheries, which many Cook Inlet commercial fishers believe is biased against them, to work on those. Gov. Tony Knowles recently appointed sport-fishing advocate Bob Penney to the North Pacific council.

"Penney is anti-commercial fishing all around," Vanek said.



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