Pendulum ticks toward commercial fishermen as Cook Inlet meeting wraps

  • A group of Cook Inlet east side commercial set gillnet fishermen gathers to discuss a proposal at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Feburary 2017 in Anchorage. Unlike previous meetings, the Upper Cook Inlet meeting was generally sparsely attended throughout its 14-day run with less open conflict between users. (Photo/Elizabeth Earl/Peninsula Clarion)

The Board of Fisheries pendulum may have swung, but it’s still attached to the same clockwork.

The triennial Upper Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meeting ended March 8, leaving behind a big fish goal for the Kenai River late king salmon run, potential expanded hours for the Cook Inlet drift and setnet fleets, and a brand new early run king salmon plan on the Kenai River.

Though the tone was mild compared to that of 2014, the same grudges against the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the board, and among rival user groups are bubbling away.

After three years of buildup following an emotional 2014 meeting, the 2017 marathon was sparsely attended and largely civil, focusing mainly on what ADFG Commercial Fisheries Division Operations Manager Forrest Bowers called “minor changes.”

“This early run king plan, that’s probably the biggest change outside the large fish goal,” Bowers said. “With the late run sockeye plan, there was a long discussion but at the end of the day it didn’t really do much. The late run king plan, I mean, again, long discussion, relaxed the August restriction a bit, but it’s fundamentally the same.”

Commercial fishing board or not?

The fundamental sameness Bowers spoke of could be defining feature of the 2017 meeting.

In spite of a big board shakeup and three years of heated fishing seasons, the same undercurrents remain.

Fishermen cluster together to speculate on board politics and count votes, or to speculate on the inner leanings of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or the board process itself. Rival user groups invoke science, economics, and Alaska to back their proposals.

For fishermen, perception is reality, and the next three years might well be a kind of film negative of the previous three years where that perception is concerned.

Gov. Bill Walker put an end to a long-running board dynamic in 2015 when he ousted former chairman Karl Johnstone, who commercial fishermen continue to revile for pushing proposals that would benefit sportfishing interests.

With three new board members — Israel Payton, Alan Cain, and Robert Ruffner — the perception has shifted somewhat.

Commercial fishermen are happy with the changes, while sportfishermen say the inexperience level is contributing to the board’s tendency to be misled. Most at the meeting credit Johnstone’s absence with a renewed intellectual curiosity on the board’s part.

“I think it’s more thoughtful,” said new board Chair John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg. “There’s a lot more thoughts, more questions than usual. The questions are amazing. People really understand what we’re talking about.”

As usual though, there is an equal and opposite reaction.

“With no compelling evidence that there is an impending financial disaster in the Upper Cook Inlet commercial fisheries, this Board of Fisheries, all appointees of Governor Walker, has significantly weakened the 40-year directive of a sport fish priority for king and coho salmon in Upper Cook Inlet, potentially triggering untold damage to a billion-dollar economic driver in Southcentral Alaska,” stated a letter from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

Certainly, the perception of commercial leanings within Walker’s administration has some merit. Walker appointed former commercial fisherman Andy Mack as his commissioner of the Department of Natural Resources.

Walker also appointed purse seiner Sam Cotten as commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and through his position has taken many actions to advance the interests of Alaska’s small boat fishermen on the federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

However, he also voted in favor of actions the sportfishing industry will benefit from, including a Recreational Quota Entity program for halibut chart guides that would allow them to purchase commercial quota.

Meanwhile, stakeholders are watching new board members carefully for voting habits — some commercial fishermen claim to have already isolated some emerging patterns in Israel Payton, while sportfishermen have carefully scrutinized Robert Ruffner’s actions.

Ruffner was defeated by a single vote in 2015 after sport groups led by KRSA defined him as a commercial fishing advocate who also upset the regional balance by not hailing from Anchorage.

When Walker had the chance to fill three positions, KRSA backed off and all were unanimously confirmed in 2016.

Minor changes

What minor changes happened benefitted commercial fishermen more than sportfishermen.

After several years of infighting between user groups, the board threw a few small bones to commercial drift and setnet sockeye fishermen.

Early in the meeting, the board reworked the “1 percent” rule to allow more potential fishing time for East Side set netters with a narrow 4-3 split vote of the board’s seven members.

The new rule closes commercial sockeye harvest when less than 1 percent of the season’s total sockeye harvest is taken in two consecutive periods after Aug. 7. Formerly, 1 percent rule took effect on Aug. 1, so the change could allow a week’s more fishing time for the commercial fleet.

The paired restrictions between setnetters and the sport fishery tied to Kenai River king salmon abundance that were advanced by KRSA and passed in 2014 also got a makeover, but weren’t fully repealed.

Setnetters have no more hours restrictions after Aug. 1, when the Kenai sport fishery closes, and have two additional 12-hour openings when the sport fishery is at no bait or catch and release.

ADFG managers, of course, can close the fishery whenever they feel a need.

Upper Cook Inlet drift fishermen also benefitted from the meeting, though only enough for high-profile drifters to describe it as “token.”

Commercial fishing managers can open Central District hours for the drift fleet from July 16 to July 31, potentially giving more sockeye harvest than can be had on the inlet’s edges within the coho salmon “conservation corridor” that was also created in 2014 in order to protect northern-bound coho salmon.

The Kenai River early-run king salmon plan could be the only proposal that escaped user group conflicts.

The early king run on the Kenai River was indeed an outlier in the often contentious board process, a collaboration between Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition and the Kenai River Professional Guides Association.

Falling king salmon runs have plagued the state for the better part of a decade, and while improving in some places, the fishermen want to protect the early king salmon run on the Kenai River as much as possible.

According to a new plan, if managers project fewer than 2,800 to 5,600 early run Kenai kings longer than 75 centimeters, the fishery is closed.

If it is between the sustainable escapement goal and the optimum escapement goal of 3,900 to 6,600 salmon, the managers can close the fishery or allow catch-and-release.

If it’s within or greater than the optimum escapement goal, managers can allow bait and retention of fish of a size the department deems appropriate. The measure also abolishes the slot limit,

“All three groups got together and said, for this one stock, we need something,” said Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease. “We came together, put aside our differences — and they exist, we’re at each other’s throats on a number of issues — we came together and said for the good of management, we want to rebuild it. We’re going to forego harvest opportunity for the betterment of this stock.”

Science-based management

The perception that the board is managed on science continues to shift and bend according to who is on the benefitting end of management actions. Competing user groups each invoked the “best available science,” even when the science could be clearer.

“Are we going to manage based on science, or are we not going to manage based on science?” asked Gease.

“This should not be about politics, this should be about the science and the biology,” said David Martin, president of commercial fishing group United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

Some science is more clearly defined, more up to date and more solidly available on which to base management. But the department budget has been slashed by $10 million in the last few years.

In some cases, rival groups will even draw information from the same studies to justify two competing management proposals.

This played out with many drift net and sportfishing-related management proposals for several areas in Upper Cook Inlet.

“It’s no big secret we don’t have the information to really assess the coho population,” said board member Sue Jeffrey, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak. “I think the department has a handle on the coho fishery. It’s just that if the fishery groups all want more, you’re going to err on the side of conservation.”

Erik Huebsch, vice president of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, or UCIDA, readily admitted that the science sometimes serves interests.

“We definitely cherry pick. We all do that, get what fits our argument,” said Huebsch.

In UCIDA’s case, available coho data shows that salmon stocks are intermingled in the middle of Cook Inlet. Therefore, instead of being confined to the “conservation corridor,” he argues, drift fishermen should be allowed to fish in the middle of the inlet to catch more sockeye and prevent coho overescapement in Mat-Su river systems.

With the same data, the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission argued against drift fishermen in the middle of the inlet.

“The folks in the Mat-Su are saying, ‘See? All these coho are out in the middle and we need to keep them from catching them so we get our coho through.’” Huebsch said. “We’re using the same data and have two different approaches to it.”

Huebsch and UCIDA still don’t rule out spin, though. He said the department presented improper numbers to the board regarding coho exploitation rates, which were only corrected at UDICA’s insistence.

“We’ve seen it too many times for it to be a mistake,” said Martin.

And even though commercial groups like UCIDA point to this example as evidence of a bias within ADFG, sportfishing interests use other examples to point to the same issue, in particular to the three days it took the board to craft new language around Kenai River sockeye and king salmon restrictions.

“When you look at science, one of the interesting things is when you have advocates within the department for a certain scientific viewpoint, that’s where we get frustrated,” said Gease.

Gease pointed to the lack of discussion or action on escapement goals on the Kasilof and Kenai rivers as proof.

“It’s a Dr. Jekyll, Mr. Hyde approach,” he said. “You don’t know which department you’re talking to. Dr. Jekyll science based? Maybe it’s just a generational shift. Maybe we’ll grow out of it. Maybe in three years we’ll have an honest discussion about what the right SEG (sustainable escapement goal) is on the Kenai River, or a Kasilof counter for kings.”

Along with science, both sides have continued to assert that in the end the board should make a decision based on economics — which like the science, depends on the source.

“It does eventually all boil down to the economics, and the jobs, and the stability to the coastal communities that have nothing else but commercial fisheries,” said Martin.

Gease said the same.

“When you look at the allocation criteria in the Magnuson-Stevens Act, four of the seven deal with economic factors. Nowhere is that discussion is the sport fishery,” he said. “Our footprint economically is very large, comparably. Instead of doing the constitutional mandate of figuring out how this resource can benefit to all Alaskans….we seem to be asking, ‘how can we allocate this resource to benefit me and 300 to 400 of my other individuals user group who may or may not be Alaskans?’”

From ADFG’s viewpoint, the squabbling is just part of the process.

“You’ll always watch the pendulum swing back and forth,” said ADFG Southcentral Area Management Coordinator Matt Miller. “That’s always going to be the public perception. Certainly we try to be consistent.”

“You hear the opposite about the same thing,” said Bowers. “People say the board process is broken. I think it’s a pretty cool process really. A two-week meeting’s not that cool, but the fact that person can submit a proposal and maybe it ends up adopted. That’s pretty cool, you know?”

03/09/2017 - 9:45am