Cook Inlet setnet buyback program gains support

  • Commercial setnet fishers pick a net during a calm day in the Cook Inlet in this file photo. After years of discussion, a majority of stakeholders have expressed interest in a program to remove nearly half of the setnet permits from the Cook Inlet East Side fishery through a buyback. (Photo/File/AJOC)

Cook Inlet fishermen are again pushing for a bill that would authorize a commercial set gillnet permit buyback, but with the budget battles ongoing, it may not advance this year.

Senate Bill 90 is the latest version of the plan to set up a buyback program for setnet permits on Cook Inlet’s east side. About 440 permits exist on the east side, targeting primarily sockeye salmon with secondary catches of king salmon headed for the Kasilof and Kenai rivers.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, aims to permanently remove up to 200 permits and their shore leases from the fishery.

The fishermen have been debating a way to reduce the fleet for about four years, surveying stakeholders for support and working with Micciche to authorize a program to do so.

The latest version of the bill would require a confirming vote by the fishermen, a voluntary signup for the program and would seek funding other than the state General Fund. With a set price of $260,000 per permit, the whole program would cost $52 million.

“There are some private endowments that have mentioned some interest because of the conservation; there are federal programs that participate in conservation efforts,” Micciche told the Senate Resources Committee in a hearing April 22. “This is going to take some time to be ready with the election and settling any of the appeals and whatever goes with it, but the state is not paying for any of this. This is going to come from other sources that we’re not sure of at this point.”

The conflict between fisheries user groups in Cook Inlet is notorious statewide. The Kenai River draws thousands of anglers from all over the world for its salmon runs, while commercial fishermen ply both the beaches and the Inlet.

Personal-use dipnet fishermen come from all over the state each summer for the fisheries at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. As king salmon runs declined and both commercial and sport fisheries have been restricted in response, the allocation conflicts have become more pitched.

Micciche said this bill is intended to help reduce the allocation conflict, allow more king salmon to make it through to spawn and make the remaining setnetters more economically viable. In an example of rare cooperation, multiple groups have come together to support the effort, he said.

If the Legislature approves the bill, the initiative would go to a vote among permit holders. If they approve it, permit holders could put their names into a lottery to be drawn for the buyback. The bill also redefines the areas of the buyback, sectioning off the Cook Inlet East Side setnetters as Upper Subdistrict fishermen that are distinct from setnetters in the Northern District or on the west side of the Inlet.

In the past, the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents the East Side setnetters, has been wary of bills establishing a buyback program. After taking surveys and working with Micciche on the language, the association offered its support for Micciche’s version of the bill, said Andy Hall, the president of the association’s board.

That doesn’t mean every person in the fleet supports the concept, but the survey brought back about 70 percent to 80 percent support, he said.

The price tag for the buyout may seem high to some people, Hall said, but it’s based on 10 years of average earnings and was closed to adjustment at the end of December 2018. Removing gear from the fishery will likely have an immediate financial benefit for the fishermen who are left.

“We’re not looking to be martyrs; we’re business people,” he said. “If we’re going to step away, we want to be remunerated for it.”

One source of contention is how so many fishermen wound up on the east side of the Inlet to begin with. Commercial fishermen are issued permits for Cook Inlet in general, and though they were more widely distributed across the west side, east side and Kalgin Island before the 1980s, they began migrating to the east side because of the accessibility of the fishery and the proximity of processing facilities in Kenai, Kasilof and Ninilchik.

Fate Putnam, the chair of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, told the Senate Resources committee that the days of the East Side fishery being highly profitable are gone, though.

“I will say this: There was a time about 20 years ago that these fishermen were making about $100,000 (per permit),” he said. “Now they’re making about $11,000.”

However, the Senate Resources committee members expressed some hesitation about forwarding the bill on. Senate President Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, who sits on the committee, proposed an amendment requiring anyone participating in the buyback to have held the permit for at least 10 years and have fished actively at least five of those years. Her goal was to prevent speculation or system-gaming, she said.

Micciche said the amendment could effectively kill the program, as many of the fishermen who want to participate have held their permits for less than 10 years. Permits are swapped every year in fisheries; according to information provided by Putnam to the Legislature, an average of 58 setnet permits in Cook Inlet in general are transferred each year.

The ratio of permits being transferred is similar to other fisheries and hasn’t changed much over the years, suggesting that there isn’t much speculation going on about the buyback, Putnam wrote in a memo to the Senate Resources Committee.

Speculation may happen, but that’s normal in fisheries, Micciche told the committee.

“People speculate on fishing permits. That’s what they do,” he said. “We don’t care which permits they are — we just want 200 out. And if you don’t pass the vote, you don’t get the buyback and you don’t get the extra fish in the rivers.”

During an April 29 hearing, the Senate Resources Committee moved SB 90 out of committee after amending it to require anyone participating in the buyback to have held the permit for at least four years and have fished for two of those years. The new amendment, proposed by Giessel, was intended to be a middle ground to prevent speculation but to still allow the program to continue.

Micciche said the adjustment better served the intention to prevent speculation, and the committee passed the amendment and the bill without objection.

Ken Coleman, who fishes a setnet site near the Kenai River and is one of the proponents of the buyback program through the East Side Consolidation Association, said he hopes to see the bill climb through the Legislature this year, but it still has a long way to go through even the Senate before it goes to the House. Several committee members expressed concern about funding, and though Micciche said the fishermen have no intention to seek state funding, they need a program established by a bill first before they can apply for funding elsewhere.

Konrad Jackson, Micciche’s chief of staff, said he plans to keep working to get the bill heard, but with less than three weeks left before the Legislature’s 121st day and major budget items still to be debated, it’s unlikely the bill will make it far this year.

Coleman said they may be able to seek federal funding, even though the fishery is not in federal waters.

“I’ve had several talks with the federal delegation about funding, and also had talks with (The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) about their capacity reduction program,” he said.

“To the extent we can seek funding, we have to have a work product. I’ve been in discussion with the federal delegation, and they’re amenable to seeking funding, but we need a bill.”

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
05/01/2019 - 9:11am