Cook Inlet meeting to kick off with new faces, old grudges

  • Matthew Dollick of Wasilla untangles a sockeye from his dipnet on July 11, 2015, in Kenai. The two-week Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting begins Feb. 23 with three new members, who will have to content with old grudges among user groups under the cloud of a low forecast for the sockeye salmon run to the Kenai River in 2017. (Photo/File/Peninsula Clarion)

The Alaska Board of Fisheries has a full plate for its triennial Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting beginning Feb. 23 and running through March 3 in Anchorage.

The board will look quite different with three new members since the last meeting and so does the fishery after three years of restriction, tight markets, lawsuits, and accusations of disregarding the best science that revolve around the board decisions at its last Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2014.

Chinook, or king, salmon stocks on the Kenai River and around the state started to plummet in the late 2000s, and in 2014, the Board of Fisheries approved paired restrictions directing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game had to take certain actions when the Kenai king fishery was restricted, including limiting commercial fishing time.

Sport representatives generally thought it fair to share the burden of conservation, while commercial fishermen said it hit them harder than the sportfishermen.

This year, nearly 200 proposals from commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen will try to overhaul entire fishery management plans, revise escapement goals, expand or contract fishing areas and openings hours, add or remove new gear types and in general try to open up more fishing opportunity for each respective group.

Commercial harvests decline since 2014

The situation in the Kenai River doesn’t seem quite as dire as in 2014, when king salmon runs were at a low point.

King salmon show signs of being on the rebound throughout some of the state, but Cook Inlet commercial sockeye harvests will be as low as they’ve been in 15 years in 2017, if ADFG predictions are accurate. Area managers have already said that the season will be much more restrictive for the commercial fleet and all sockeye users should expect tighter rules if the run is as small as forecast.

In 2014, 2015, and 2016, commercial sockeye fishermen cried foul over “foregone harvest” — fish they wanted to catch and sell but couldn’t due to the paired restrictions.

Over the last three years, the commercial harvest of all five species of salmon in Upper Cook Inlet has been consistent at just more than 3 million fish per year. However that is about 1 million less than the 1966-2012 average of 4.1 million salmon per year.

The management on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers needs adjusting, according to more than a dozen proposals seeking to modify or entirely repeal their respective sockeye salmon management plans.

Some proposals want to get rid of key management measurements, while others want to add more.

Upper Cook Inlet drift fishermen are trying to erase management that ties their openings to the run sizes of Susitna River-bound coho salmon and Kenai River and Kasilof River sockeye salmon.

The Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee is proposing some of the same ideas put forth by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

The proposals criticize the current regulations as too restrictive. Several variations submitted say much of the same thing — the drift fishery should be more flexible with windows of allowable fishing time.

Chilling board politics

Commercial and sport fishermen throughout Upper Cook Inlet have laundry lists of complaints, but this year the tone may be different than in 2014.

The board itself has changed substantially in membership since the last meeting, not only in people but in representativeness. The long-held idea dedicated user group or geographic seats was undone when Gov. Bill Walker was able to fill three spots in 2016, a year after removing sportfishing advocate Karl Johnstone as chair.

Over the last 20 years, the seven-member Board of Fisheries has typically struck an informal balance among user groups by having three commercial fishermen, three sportfishermen, and one subsistence fishermen.

Alaska law does not mandate geographic balance, but that was part of the Legislature’s rationale in 2015 when rejecting Kenai area habitat advocate Robert Ruffner by one vote after sportfishing groups organized against him for alleged sympathies to commercial fishing and the fact he does not live in Anchorage.

This year, the board only has two commercial fishermen, vice-chair Sue Jeffrey and chair John Jensen, one sportfishing loge owner, Reed Morisky, and one subsistence fisherman, Orville Huntington.

It also welcomes three newcomers — Alan Cain, Israel Payton, and Ruffner, who was confirmed on his second appointment by Walker in 2016.

As a whole, the appointments follow Walker’s election promise to take the politics out of the Board of Fisheries process.

“It seems like with the list of names…he still has that idea, that that dedicated seat idea is no the right way to do this business,” Ruffner told the Journal in 2016. “Picking a candidate based on how much they’re opposed to another particular gear type isn’t the right idea. I think picking individuals with a balanced view is a better way to look at it.”

Cain and Ruffner come from conservation or enforcement backgrounds. Cain served as an Alaska Wildlife Trooper, while Ruffner is the executive director for the Kenai Watershed Forum. Payton grew up in the Bush as a subsistence user and was a member of the Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee, which has some history of advocating for sport-centered regulations.

Fish fights

The meeting caps three years of turmoil in fish markets and fish politics.

Some in the fishing community object to the “Cook Inlet fish wars” moniker, claiming it mischaracterizes the issue as political, when it is in fact biological and scientific.

Looking back over the last three years, Cook Inlet fisheries have their share of squabbles.

Walker didn’t come out of the fray unscathed, having failed at three nominations to an empty Board of Fisheries seat in early 2015.

Roland Maw, the former executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, kicked off the fray when he applied for commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game after Walker’s election, but was unanimously deemed unqualified to interview by the board chaired by Johnstone.

That kicked off a series of events that began with commercial fishermen protesting Maw’s treatment and then Johnstone quitting in 2015 with six months left in his term after Walker said he would not be reappointing him and would replace him on the board with Maw.

Maw eventually withdrew from consideration from the board after it came to light he had resident hunting and fishing privileges in both Montana and Alaska, which is illegal to do in both states. Maw pled no contest to charges in Montana and is still facing a dozen felony charges for PFD fraud in Alaska.

Johnstone is still kicking, too, having written an opinion piece for the Journal in February 2017 on behalf of sportfishing interests that advocated for the gradual elimination of commercial fishing as a priority in Cook Inlet.

Tom Kluberton, another sportfishing representative, announced he would not be interested in another term in a letter that read like a soldier’s post-war memoir.

Walker also lost his boards and commissions director, Karen Gillis, when he Gillis said the governor planned to nominate Roberta Quintavell to the Board of Fisheries and she quit in protest considering Quintavell unqualified for the position.

Bob Mumford, Walker’s last ditch appointment in 2015 to fill Johnstone’s seat after Ruffner was rejected and Quintavell’s name was not forwarded, resigned from the board in early 2016 for personal reasons.

UCIDA recorded a legal win in the interim, succeeding in a lawsuit that challenged the North Pacific Fishery Management Council on a 2011 decision to remove Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries from the federal fisheries plan. The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals has ruled last September that the council must craft a fisheries management plan for Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula, and that it must conform to the 10 federal standards under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

One group tried to ban an entire sector of fishermen from the river.

Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, founded by Bob Penney, gathered enough signatures for a ballot initiative that would have banned all setnets from the Kenai River. The group said the measure was to protect king salmon caught in the setnets.

The Alaska Supreme Court, however, ruled in December 2015 that the ballot would have been an unconstitutional giveaway and rejected it from appearing on the 2016 primary ballot.

Residents of Anchorage and of the Central Kenai Peninsula even battled it out over the meeting location, with Kenai-area mayors offering the board $60,000 in savings if it moved the meeting from Anchorage.

The next two weeks will reveal how much old grudges will be in play, but having three new members also offers a chance for a fresh start.

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

Updated: 
02/22/2017 - 12:29pm