Gov. Sean Parnell said the budget he rolls out Dec. 15 will offer a clearer picture of his plans for revamping the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
After announcing Cora Campbell as interim head of the department Nov. 18, Parnell said the Alaska public is "tired of the acrimony" between competing sectors of the fishing industry and he has tasked the interim leadership team at Fish and Game led by Campbell to explore ways to further coordinate -- and perhaps even consolidate -- the separate divisions of commercial and sport fishing.
"The idea is to get people working together more and the divisions are focused on managing the resource rather than managing a specific fishery or user group," Campbell said, "and just making sure everyone is on the same page when it comes to the data, the numbers, the resource and what's out there."
In a speech to the Resource Development Council's annual conference, Parnell said he wanted to revamp the structure of the separate divisions of sport and commercial fishing he described as dueling "kingdoms" within the department.
"The fishermen in Southcentral want to make sure they can get their fish in Cook Inlet just like the commercial fishermen of our state want to make a livelihood," he said following the speech. "Instead of segregating (commercial) fish and sport fish, I think we ought to be merging the data sets together and agreeing on baseline fisheries data. That's what science is about. They shouldn't be operating from different data sets and advocating for different data sets."
Representatives of various groups use the term "fish wars" to describe the ongoing conflict between commercial and sport fishing allocations in Cook Inlet.
Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said the sport and personal use fisheries in Southcentral contribute $800 million to $900 million in economic impact to the state.
"That far surpasses the economic values generated from the commercial fisheries in upper Cook Inlet," he said. "That's what the disagreement is about. You can optimize the commercial fishery to gain 5 percent value, but that may come at 5 percent or 10 percent or 20 percent cost to sport fishery. When one is much larger than the other, why are we focused on the smaller one?"
After the announcement, United Fishermen of Alaska executive director Arni Thomson said he was glad Parnell was taking on the conflicts in Southcentral.
"In a number of cases, you're dealing with the same species of fish and you get two divisions that disagree on the actual biomass estimates," Thomson said. "They should be using the same data. Integrating will create cost efficiencies. That is very much needed in any agency. I think he has recognized that it is a priority issue he wants to deal with and I applaud him for that.
Any new policy affecting the separate divisions' funding will shift that battle to the Legislature. The commercial fishing division is funded through the general fund while sport fish is paid for through user fees and federal matching dollars.
"The idea of consolidating sport fish with com (commercial) fish is not going to fly because sport fish is going to say, 'No, wait a minute. You're not using our money to support com fish,'" said Eddie Grasser, president of the Alaska chapter of Safari Club International. "I'm sorry, but that ain't going to happen. We've been through these wars before."
Grasser said his organization is concerned about declining revenues from user fees and the lack of resources for wildlife conservation and management.
Gease said additional general fund dollars directed to research would be a good thing.
"Is there some efficiency that could be gained, say, on the research component? There might be," Gease said. "We might look at other ways to monitor fisheries and use modeling as a technique. One thing we've been a proponent of as an organization is to use fisheries models that are used in federal fisheries and other state fisheries around the country."
Both fish and game sides agree there is not an adequate amount of human resources for management and research at the Fish and Game Department. Grasser said Parnell might face an uphill battle trying to increase any part of the general fund budget, let alone proposing more research dollars for the department in order to avoid a battle over the sport fish and game division funding streams.
"Under different circumstances he might be able to," Grasser said. "All the discussions I've heard in the last month are about how to cut the budget, not to grow it. That being the case, it's kind of a nonstarter."
As a self-described student of history, Grasser said ending the "fish wars" won't be easy.
"Forty years ago nobody envisioned that there would be 150,000 sport fishermen licensed in the Anchorage area," he said. "There are conflicts going back to statehood, but they are getting worse because more people are sport and fewer are commercial in the overall populace. To allocate more resource to sport, you're going to have to take away from commercial guys. Then you get a natural phenomenon where people are going to fight for it. They're not just going to give it up."
Andrew Jensen can be reached at email@example.com.
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