Sport effort to eliminate setnetters proposed for ballot

The Cook Inlet fish wars are back in full force, with sport fishermen angling to eliminate commercial setnetters.

The newly formed Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, or AFCA, submitted a ballot initiative petition Nov. 6 that would ask voters to ban setnetting in Cook Inlet.

The AFCA said the action is meant to preserve king salmon, which the organization says are in decline, and would prohibit setnets in statewide nonsubsistence areas.

Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Valdez, Ketchikan and much of the Matanuska-Susitna and Kenai Peninsula boroughs are defined as nonsubsistence areas in Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations.

Setnetting in subsistence areas, including Kodiak, could continue. But if that area was no longer considered a subsistence area, as was discussed this fall, setnetting would go by the wayside.

AFCA President Joe Connors said that if an area grows enough to lose a subsistence designation, setnetting may not be appropriate there.

The alliance registered as a nonprofit in Alaska in mid-October, but it is essentially a name-change from the Kenai King Conservation Alliance nonprofit formed in May. Both organizations registered as 501(c)6 nonprofits, which allows them to engage in political activities such as lobbying.

Members of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, are involved in both organizations, including founder Bob Penney, who is also on the board of the new alliance. KRSA is a 501(c)3 nonprofit and is subject to legal limits on the amount of money it can spend on political activity.

In a prepared opening statement about the initiative, Connors pointed to setnets as the cause of king salmon declines.

“Setnets are decimating other fish species, such as king salmon, trying to return to the rivers of the Kenai Peninsula,” Connors said Nov. 6, before submitting the initiative. He worked as a setnetter for six years, and pointed to his experience as evidence for the issue with setnet caught kings.

In a statement, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which largely represents Cook Inlet setnetters, said the fleet has a relatively low historic exploitation rate of Kenai kings at 13 percent, and that the action would decimate a fleet that supports the Kenai Peninsula economy.

 “The Cook Inlet setnet fishery is important to Alaska’s economy and to the economy of the Kenai Peninsula,” KPFA wrote in a Nov. 8 statement. “Eighty-four percent of the setnet permits are owned by Alaska residents, and 80 percent of those Alaskans live on the Kenai Peninsula. Revenues from the fishery don’t just support fishing families and deckhands, they trickle down to a web of support businesses including fish processors, fish tenders, truck drivers, mechanics, welders, fuel sellers, boat builders, grocery and hardware stores.

“The loss of the fishery would do irreparable harm not only to the fishermen who would lose their livelihoods but to the Kenai Peninsula’s economy as well.”

Connors, who owns a lodge on the Kenai, agreed that the initiative would put Cook Inlet setnetters out of business.

But, he said, the king salmon are being devastated, and the fish must come first.

Kings around the state are at a period of low abundance, and scientists organized to study the issue have not pointed to setnets as a cause in any region, including the Kenai River.

“The truth is, Cook Inlet’s setnet fisheries have existed for more than a century because we have harvested responsively, sustaining Cook Inlet’s salmon runs year after year,” KPFA wrote in its statement. “We have full confidence in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to manage for sustainability of the resource, as they have done since statehood. We know that sustainable salmon runs will provide healthy fisheries for generations to come.”

Evidence doesn’t point to Kenai kings as in a permanent decline. Minimum escapement goals have been met each year, and ADFG has concluded that overexploitation of the stock is not occurring.

The stock has fluctuated in the past between small and large returns, and the initiative does not contain a sunset date or other mechanism to address the possibility that kings could rebound.

Connors said he would be open to allowing setnetting again in the future if king numbers were larger, but that would need to be a discussion down the road, not something to include automatically.

For now, the group wants its initiative on the August 2016 primary ballot, or for the Alaska State Legislature to take action before then.

Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell has 60 days to review the petition with input from the state’s Department of Law and Division of Elections.

Treadwell is tasked with checking out the signatures so far, and affirming that the initiative meets the law.

If he certifies it, the initiative backers will have one year to collect about 30,000 signatures from around the state.

Allocation issues at play

Allocative issues cannot be addressed in voter referendums, and the AFCA does not want to debate them.

During a Nov. 6 interview before the initiative was submitted, the organization reiterated that it wants to start a statewide discussion, but said it couldn’t talk about the allocative issues.

A discussion about the number of kings caught by setnetters versus in-river fishermen was limited because of concerns about talking about allocative issues.

But the proposal, according to others, is an allocative one because the organization wants to ban setnetters, not all fishing. In a Nov. 12 response to the action, the United Fishermen of Alaska, or UFA, wrote that the initiative is allocative, and the Board of Fisheries would be the better place for discussion.

UFA represents 36 commercial fishing organizations around the state.

“AFCA has established their actions as a conservation issue, however the initiative is actually a purely allocative issue and only seeks to ban nets in urban areas,” wrote UFA. “Eliminating nets doesn’t target the problem, which is in-river and ocean survival of small chinook salmon.”

Connors said setnetters are the target because they are the problem, and that in-river users are already restricted. He said he would absolutely accept in-river restrictions as well, but they weren’t part of the initiative because ADFG has implemented them already.

This past summer, both in-river users and setnetters faced fishing restrictions.

If setnetters were eliminated, the drift fleet would see increased fishing opportunity as it did in 2012 when those boats took nearly the entire sockeye harvest for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers because the setnetters were closed for king salmon conservation reasons.

The in-river king salmon anglers were also prohibited from taking any kings that summer, leading to a disaster declaration by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce.

Were the initiative to succeed, the effect would be to allocate sockeye from the setnetters to the drift fleet and additional sockeye and king salmon to in-river users.

Although the new group has said that the effort to shut down setnetting in Cook Inlet is conservation-driven, at least one member has been working on that effort since before there was a concern about king salmon.

In its Nov. 8 statement, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association called the initiative, “the latest incarnation of Bob Penney’s long-running effort to put more than 720 families and small business owners who work in Cook Inlet’s Setnet fishery out of business.”

In 2007, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association asked the Board of Fisheries to shift the allocations in Cook Inlet so that 85 percent more salmon were reserved for sport, personal use and subsistence fishermen. [Correction: KRSA submitted several proposals for the 2008 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, but not one for an 85 percent allocation for non-commercial users. The Fishermen's News article cited below referenced KRSA testimony to the state Legislature quoting the Penney as wanting to reverse what he described as an 85/15 split between commercial and other users' harvest in the Inlet. In his testimony, Penney said that management should be changed "180 degrees" from that strategy, however, a proposal for an 85/15 split favoring non-commercial users was not made to the board.]

Penney, a founder of both KRSA and the new AFCA, was at the forefront of that effort.

“If the board doesn’t pass this, this is going to become a public issue in the next three to five years while I’m still on this earth. We’re going to see that take place and be put to a vote of the people in some way,” Penney told Bob Tkacz, a Journal correspondent writing for Fishermen’s News at that time.

At that time, there were no conservation issues. King returns peaked at 125,872 fish in 2005, according to ADFG data, and remained well beyond the escapement goal range at 77,176 kings in 2006 before KRSA and Penney took their proposal to the board.

The proposal didn’t pass then, and now Penney has brought it forward again but outside the Board of Fisheries process. The Upper Cook Inlet board meeting, which lasts two weeks, begins at the end of January 2014 in Anchorage.

Gearing up for a fight

The new organization has already begun its work to lobby the legislature on the issue.

On Nov. 6, the same day the alliance submitted its ballot initiative, Penney contacted members of the Alaska legislature about the same issue.

“We hope you will take a stand in support of our efforts,” Penney wrote in email sent from his Penco Properties office.

The email outlines the initiative, asserts that it is needed for conservation, and says that setnetters have “the largest amount of by-catch of any fishery.”

That’s not true, however. Setnetters are allowed to harvest kings as part of their fishing operation. Bycatch is a term that refers to prohibited species catch, and setnet-caught kings are not prohibited. In fact, setnetters are encouraged to keep the kings, report them, and sell them.

In the email, Penney also wrote that if the initiative passes, setnetters “will receive fair compensation for the value of their permits.”

But the initiative’s language does not contain any provisions for a buyback or other compensation program, and it is not guaranteed that the state would choose to enact one.

KRSA, which Penney founded, has a history of lobbying the legislature. This past session, an intense lobbying effort by the organization successfully blocked Bristol Bay setnet fisherman Vince Webster’s reappointment to the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

Ultimately, he was rejected by a 30-29 vote with many legislators saying they were treating the vote as a referendum on ADFG Commissioner Cora Campbell and management of Cook Inlet fisheries in general.

Several legislators cited the KRSA talking points against Webster, particularly over how a Cook Inlet task force created to identify possible solutions to king salmon issues failed to reach a consensus, and for a unanimous board decision to adopt a new escapement goal for late-run Kenai king salmon based on the use of new sonar counters.

Webster was co-chair of the task force along with fellow board member Tom Kluberton, who was unanimously confirmed for another term by the legislature.

The board was also required by law to adopt the ADFG escapement goal for late-run Kenai kings, but Webster was targeted by KRSA for both outcomes. After the vote, Gov. Sean Parnell expressed his disappointment with the vote and criticized the KRSA campaign tactics.

“It is disappointing, discouraging and disheartening when bad information or politics prevent a qualified Alaskan from serving our state,” Parnell said at the time.

Another legislative effort aimed at setnetters failed, however, last spring.

The state Senate was considering an uncontroversial resolution to urge the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council to limit king salmon bycatch, but Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, introduced an amendment to limit setnetter “bycatch” as well.

The Stoltze amendment led to the failure of the resolution, which was headed toward easy passage until his language was added.

Other fishing organizations, including the Alaska Salmon Alliance, or ASA, have questioned the use of the legislature and referendums for changing fisheries management.

“Abandoning the expertise of ADFG and the citizen-driven board process without due consideration for science is a recipe for resource management disaster for future generations of Alaskans,” said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Kenai-based ASA, after the initiative was announced.

The ASA, which is also registered as 501(c)6 nonprofit, has talked about building consensus on Cook Inlet fisheries issues, including hosting roundtables recently to bring fishermen together in Anchorage and Palmer.

Thomson said the initiative is a diversion from that effort, and one that wouldn’t help the regional fish wars.

“We were totally taken by surprise,” he said.

Updated: 
11/14/2013 - 11:45am

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