Cooler tone for Board of Fisheries as Kenai sockeye deliberations begin

  • Cook Inlet stakeholders gather during a break at the Board of Fisheries meeting ongoing in Anchorage from Feb. 23 to March 8. The board is already behind schedule after taking up Kenai River sockeye to open the meeting, but most have noticed a decidedly different mood with three new members since the last contentious Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2014. (Photo/DJ Summers/AJOC)

Gov. Bill Walker’s Board of Fisheries shakeup either depoliticized the board or compromised it, according to different stakeholders. Either way, it certainly cooled things down.

Five days into a two-week meeting, the Board of Fisheries started deliberating a day behind schedule over nearly 200 proposals for the Upper Cook Inlet finfish fisheries, held once every three years.

The same arguments exist between sport and commercial users, who grudgingly share the Kenai River, the state’s most heavily used waterway. But the meeting’s tone and tenor have changed with three new board members. Far fewer stakeholders than expected have shown up to the meeting so far and the discussions are tamer than the battleground atmosphere of 2014.

In the eyes of the board’s executive director, Glenn Haight, the newcomers seem to be grasping the process and the concepts, despite the clockwork intricacy of the regulations.

“It’s complicated as they’ve worked to try to address all these interests,” Haight said. “Robert (Ruffner) has done a good job trying to figure out ways to meet different goals despite the in trepidation of moving it just a little bit one way or another.”

The board itself has changed substantially since the last meeting, not only in members but in representation. The long-held idea of dedicated user group or geographic seats was undone when Walker filled three spots in 2016, a year after removing sportfishing advocate Karl Johnstone as chair.

Slow moving means the process is working for some of the fishermen who remember more impassioned meetings in the past.

“The whole vibe is different,” said Ken Coleman, a Kenai-area setnetter. “That the new board members are asking perceptive questions, and being allowed to do that, has enhanced the process. I think that it allows all users groups, whether they get their way or not, to get their issues vetted. It’s far more open than it was. Johnstone was very heavy handed.”

Johnstone received much criticism during his time on the board from commercial groups, who said he kept the board geared in favor of sportfishing interests. Without him, Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner Sam Cotten said there might be more room for board members to actually deliberate rather than entering the room with predetermined votes.

“Simplicity” became the meeting’s big theme as commercial groups proposed to slice chunks of regulation out of the fishery.

First on the agenda, the board took up a painstaking, minutiae-packed reform of the Kenai River Late-Run Sockeye Salmon Management Plan. The complexity of the fishery, of course, adds to the time lag with three new members.

The discussion was notably articulate, according to meeting participants, but it was anything but smooth. The board was behind schedule throughout the meeting’s first days, not only due to a wealth of public comments but to frequently consult with department biologists and to take lengthy breaks to write, rewrite and revise blocks of proposals.

Even in light of potential risks, board members wanted to eliminate red tape.

“The theme is that we need to simplify regulations,” said Israel Payton, one of the board’s three new members. “I’m willing to accept some risk and trust that the department has the tools and the ability to manage.”

During a break, Cotten walked out of the room and smiled.

“You following this discussion?” he asked. He twirled his hand in a circle like a bicycle wheel. “I think the point is we need to simplify some things.”

Late-run sockeye salmon management, the very first proposal discussed, is a lynchpin for the rest of the meeting and perhaps one of the most complex.

“It’s the big driver,” explained Haight. “The sockeye late run is a big darn deal, so if they can get that fundamental done, it’s a building block to everything else.”

The proposal, submitted by ADFG, asked the board to review the optimum escapement goal, OEG, and in-river goal on the Kenai River for the late run of sockeye salmon. These two goals operate in concert with the river’s sustainable escapement goal, or SEG.

An SEG is set by department biologists and cannot be altered by the board, but the board can adopt an OEG or an in-river goal that is larger than the SEG in order to make allocations for socio-economic reasons.

After several hours of discussion and back-and-forth amendments, the board passed a proposal eliminating the optimum escapement goal and increasing the range of two of the in-river goal tiers.

As adopted, the river will now be managed under a sustainable escapement goal of 700,000 to 1.2 million sockeye salmon and in-river goal with three tiers, based on the total projected run. The bottom tier, when total runs are projected less than 2.3 million fish, will remain the same.

The middle tier, when the total run is projected between 2.3 million and 4.6 million, will now be managed for between 1 million and 1.3 million fish. The upper tier, when runs are projected to be greater than 4.6 million fish, will now be managed for 1.1 million to 1.5 million fish.

The decision was a compromise — commercial fishermen got the OEG dropped but failed to remove a mandatory time closure on Tuesdays.

Sportfishing interests who objected to the OEG removal had a different take on the board’s new dynamic, saying the newer members might not have gotten the best information.

“The way that the department looks at it, and the way that it was explained to the board, is not necessarily the way we would look at it as a sportfishery,” said Ricky Gease, executive director the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

Gease said the in-river goal increase, which the department characterized as an automatic increase in allocation for the in-river fishery, artificially constricts the upper end of the escapement goal. Gease said this is counterproductive, as larger escapements mean larger returns.

The board’s meeting at Anchorage’s downtown Sheraton Hotel has seats enough for some 400 people, but attendance has topped out at 100 at best.

With all the hullaballoo of the meeting’s location in the previous year, the lack of attendance could seem surprising.

“I’ve heard some theories,” said Haight, but few of them seem to explain it entirely. “Some people speculate that you’ve gotten to a point where everyone is in an equal amount of pain.”

The theory that the meeting would be better attended if it were held on the Kenai Peninsula, he said, isn’t entirely accurate either. The board opened a working group meeting last October to be held in Kenai, but Haight said that was also poorly attended. When the board held a public hearing on Feb. 25 for federal issues, only four people testified. The federal folks that were here were shocked at how relatively calm it was.

As a final theory, Haight said he’d heard from at least one commercial fisherman who didn’t feel the kind of urgency as before — the 2017 meeting simply didn’t have any regulations new enough to hold interest.

“To me,” Haight agreed, “they’re all the same issues.”

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected].

03/01/2017 - 9:01am