AJOC EDITORIAL: Time for Penney to drop vendetta against setnetters

Bob Penney is now 0 for 2 at the Alaska Supreme Court in his efforts to reallocate Cook Inlet salmon stocks at the ballot box, but he’s not giving up the fight against commercial fishermen.

It’s past time that he did after some three decades of dividing the community with his nonstop efforts to drive his neighbors out of business and turn the Kenai River into his personal playpen.

After the court emphatically rejected his ballot initiative that would ban setnetting from Cook Inlet beaches on Dec. 31, Penney released a statement that, “Maybe it’s time the federal government looked into this issue.”

Later, Clark Penney, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance started by his grandfather to push the initiative back in November 2013, said the group is looking into pursuing an Endangered Species Act listing for Kenai River king salmon.

Anyone can petition for such a listing, but AFCA will have no better luck with the ESA than it had at the Alaska Supreme Court.

Abundance of the late run of Kenai River kings is no doubt at a low point, but the stock has never failed to meet its escapement goal and in fact returned in strong enough numbers to allow all user groups more liberal harvest opportunity in 2015.

The early run of Kenai River kings, on the other hand, has failed repeatedly in recent years to meet minimum escapement goals and was closed to all sportfishing in the past two years.

Notice it hasn’t been closed to commercial fishing. That’s because commercial fishermen haven’t been in the water during the early run for decades as the stock abundance cratered under heavy pressure from the guided angler industry.

That’s something Penney and his like-minded friends don’t ever talk about because they can’t blame it on commercial fishing.

Oh, but they can spin a fish tale, though, and never was Penney’s win-at-all-costs mentality more evident than last legislative session when his advocacy outfit led a misleading smear campaign against a well-respected member of the Kenai Peninsula community who’d been nominated to the Board of Fisheries.

The successful effort by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association to defeat Soldotna habitat advocate Robert Ruffner by a single vote based on a made-up criteria about not living in Anchorage and a ridiculous accusation that he was some kind of Manchurian candidate of the commercial fishing industry was the last straw for many in the community who saw his candidacy as an opportunity to break up what had become a polarized board dominated by factions instead of facts.

KRSA, which is based in Soldotna, claims to be a conservation organization. The words “Kenai River” are in its name. Yet they waged a public relations war against a neighbor and conservationist despite his widespread endorsements from the local legislative delegation, municipal governments, and chambers of commerce.

And they won, as they often have in the Cook Inlet fish wars they keep fueling.

A similarly dishonest campaign was waged two years earlier, and succeeded in getting board member Vince Webster booted by an identical 30-29 vote.

At both the 2011 and 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meetings, KRSA was able to essentially write the management plan for the Kenai River. In 2011, the group’s proposal severed the historical split between setnetters and drifters, turning what had typically been a 50-50 ratio into a 2-1 gap amounting to millions of dollars in reallocation.

In 2014, KRSA was able to go further, getting the board to adopt a plan that removed almost all discretion from the day-to-day fishery managers in favor of the arbitrary hours and so-called “paired restrictions” designed to render setnetting uneconomic.

One of the most damaging provisions KRSA was able to push through was a rule that after Aug. 1 the Department of Fish and Game must still restrict commercial fishing if the king salmon escapement is projected to be less than 22,500. That is the mid-point of the escapement goal, or 50 percent above the minimum.

Last year, with the king salmon escapement goal ensured of being met, the sockeye run showed up in force at record late dates, and millions of dollars worth of fish went unharvested in August because of a rule in the management plan that has no basis in science but instead reflects the political muscle of KRSA to get what it wants at the Board of Fisheries.

Penney couldn’t influence the Supreme Court with campaign donations and a Kenai River Classic perk package, though, and this time he’s going to have to take “no” for an answer.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at andrew.jensen@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
01/06/2016 - 1:58pm

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