Senators push for personal-use priority after board turned it down

  • Dipnetters crowd the mouth of the Kenai River in this file photo. After the Board of Fisheries turned it down, four senators have introduced a bill to require the Alaska Department of FIsh and Game to restrict commercial and sport fisheries before placing limits on personal use such as the popular Kenai and Chitina dipnet fisheries. (Photo/File/AP)

Four senators have introduced a bill to set an allocation priority for personal-use fisheries in the state during emergency restrictions or closures.

Senate Bill 99, introduced by Sens. Shelly Hughes, R-Palmer, David Wilson, R-Wasilla, Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, and Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, amends the statutes governing the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to require the Board of Fisheries to “place restrictions on all other fisheries before restricting personal use fisheries” when the department has enacted restrictions to meet a management goal.

There are personal-use fisheries all over the state, ranging from spearfishing for whitefish in the Chatanika River to tanner crab fishing in Homer. The main sources of conflict, though, are the popular personal-use dipnet fisheries in Southcentral Alaska for salmon.

Alaskans fished more than 20,000 angler days in the Kenai River dipnet fishery alone in 2018. Only Alaska residents qualify for the fisheries.

SB 99, introduced March 25, is similar to a proposal struck down by the Board of Fisheries less than two weeks before. The group of senators had been working on the bill for some time before the board took up the proposal at its statewide meeting, but waited to introduce it until after the board members decided, Kawasaki said.

Kawasaki said he’s been working on the issue of setting a priority for personal-use fisheries for several years, beginning when he served in the House of Representatives.

“I was personally waiting for some kind of action by the board,” he said. “We waited for the board to turn down the proposal (before introducing it).”

Despite living far inland, many Fairbanks residents drive the 6 to 7 hours south to fish at the Chitina personal-use fishery for sockeye on the Copper River. It’s a tradition for Kawasaki’s family, too, he said.

But the unpredictability of fish availability and possible closures, makes it difficult for families to plan for that trip. If passed, the bill would not mandate fishery regulation, but would require that ADFG close personal-use fisheries last during times of conservative management.

The board turned down the proposal 2-5, with the opposing members saying they felt it was unnecessary and would tie managers’ hands. Large numbers of commercial fishermen, particularly in Cook Inlet, testified to the board that pushing up the personal-use fishery would promote conflict among user groups rather than defusing allocation fights.

This isn’t the first time the Legislature has debated the topic, either. Former Sen. Bill Stoltze and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wasilla, introduced a bill in 2015 that would have required the department to restrict sportfisheries and commercial fisheries before personal-use fisheries.

The opposition then was similar, with concerns from the commercial fishermen and processors about the impacts to their industry as the demand for personal-use fisheries grows. There is no set allocation for personal-use fisheries, nor any permit cap.

The group of co-sponsors on the current iteration of the bill all represent areas with a stake in increasing personal-use fishing opportunities. Wielechowski represents part of Anchorage, where many residents drive south to either the Kenai Peninsula fisheries or Chitina to participate. Hughes and Wilson both represent the Mat-Su Valley, where many of the residents drive to the Kenai River to participate. There is a personal-use fishery at Fish Creek, but the fishery is muddy and is not open every year, and dipnetters stand a greater chance at catching their limit on the more productive Kenai River, so many choose to go south.

Wilson said he had been participating in the discussions with the other senators for some time before the board proposal came up. It’s important to his constituents, the majority of whom are “regular Alaskans,” he said.

“We’re talking in times of emergencies and closures,” he said. “The greater impact is done by the commercial fishery. All we’re asking for is we want a priority for (personal use) fishermen. Please take a look at the smallest group possible that’s not making a real dent on the fishery.”

The sponsors include two members of the Republican-led Senate Majority and two members of the Democrat-led minority. Kawasaki said the bipartisanship showed that fishing does not necessarily adhere to the same political lines as other issues.

While the board is not subject to the same political structure as the elected members of the Legislature, it’s still a politically appointed and confirmed body and notoriously rife with politics.

“It’s clear the Legislature is a political body, but the Board of Fisheries is a political body as well. The appointments to the board are some of the most controversial appointments we have,” he said. “It doesn’t matter whether you’re a Democrat or a Republican if you like fishing and your constituents like fishing.”

Wilson and Kawasaki both said they hoped the bill could move through the Legislature despite the budget taking up the majority of the Legislature’s time. Wilson said he thought it would likely be next year before it could earn approval, though Kawasaki said he hoped it could get a hearing this year. So far, it has been referred to the Senate Resources committee but has not been scheduled for a hearing.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
04/10/2019 - 9:46am