Solving Cook Inlet fish wars no easy task

Posted: Sunday, December 12, 2010

Gov. Sean Parnell announced recently that the budget he will roll out Wednesday will offer a clearer picture of his vision for revamping the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

We are, to say the least, very interested to see what Parnell has in mind.

Parnell has said the public is "tired of the acrimony" between competing sectors in the fishing industry, and has tasked his interim leadership team, headed by interim Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell, with exploring ways to coordinate, and perhaps consolidate, the department's separate commercial and sport fishing divisions.

And with that, the administration has now waded right in to the contentious battle over allocation of upper Cook Inlet salmon runs.

"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 told the Alaska Journal of Commerce recently.

That's easier said than done, as user groups already are staking out their positions. Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, pointed to reports that sport and personal-use fishing generates $800 million to $900 million for the Southcentral Alaska economy, and drew the conclusion that because of that impact, it should be given greater consideration.

That sentiment isn't likely to sit well with commercial fishermen.

Meanwhile, the United Cook Inlet Drift Association has received a court ruling allowing the organization to petition federal regulators on decisions by the Alaska Board of Fish that it feels are not in compliance with federal regulations -- and to bypass state courts in doing so.

Certainly, sport fishing and all it brings are important to the Kenai Peninsula's economy. But so is commercial fishing, and both industries rely on the health of the same resource: fish.

Politics and economics are indeed useful tools for managing some resources in the state -- the non-renewable ones, such as oil and natural gas. Tax credits and financial incentives can spur exploration, entice investment and might even get a natural gas pipeline constructed.

But they are poor drivers for managing renewable resources, such as fisheries, where the strength of the run is more important than how much money can be made from it.

Indeed, the Legislature already has experience in trying to insert itself in fisheries management, with an Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force that convened a few years ago and failed to even issue a report.

Then, there's funding. Commercial fishing management is paid for through the state's gneral fund, while the sport fish division runs on license fees and matching federal dollars. Merging departments would mean sharing resources to manage the resource.

Parnell's goal of getting competing factions to work cooperatively makes sense, and it will require some political muscle to accomplish. The Legislature will need to sign off on funding, but show restraint in allowing the administration to divvy up the money. With all the passions on all sides of the battle, that will not be an easy thing to do. Any changes in allocation are bound to upset an affected user group, and if there's one thing we know, it's that fisherman rarely like to let one get away.

Bringing peace, or at least a cease-fire, to Cook Inlet's so-called fish wars after decades of escalating conflict won't be easy. But then again, nothing worth doing ever is.

In short: Making changes to Fish and Game's competing divisions makes sense, but Gov. Parnell has a huge task ahead of him. We hope the end result is a management structure that ensures healthy salmon returns for generations to come.

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