Cook Inlet setnet permit buyout bill stalled in Senate
Cook Inlet’s East Side setnetters are still looking for relief in the form of a permit buyback, but the bill that would allow it is stuck in the Legislature.
Senate Bill 90, sponsored by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, would establish a mechanism in law for setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side to set up a permit buyback. There’s no funding included in the bill, but the establishment of the mechanism itself would allow stakeholders to seek funding, whether it comes from the federal government, state, or private equity.
Micciche introduced the bill in the 2019 session, when it received three hearings in the Senate Resources Committee. However, it does not currently have any hearings scheduled as of March 10.
Micciche said he hopes to get the bill moving soon and intended to request hearings for it.
“It’s certainly a high priority; it’s at the top of my list,” Micciche said. “My goal is to get it passed in this session.”
The East Side setnet fishery has gradually been losing value for years. For the last few decades, user-group politics have led to the Board of Fisheries reducing the time and area allowances for setnetters on Cook Inlet’s East Side, who compete for salmon headed for the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, which also host large sport and personal-use fisheries.
In 2014, after the disastrously low king salmon runs in Cook Inlet, the Board of Fisheries instituted paired-use restrictions, which further reduced setnet fishing time on the East Side and based openings on the type of gear allowed for king salmon sportfishing in the Kenai River. The effect of additional time and area cuts is that some setnetters in the Kenai area now open in mid-July and close by the second week of August.
However, Kenai king runs have continued to struggle, as they have across the state. Citing continuing concerns for king salmon in the Kenai River, the Board of Fisheries increased the optimum escapement goal for king salmon at its meeting in February, meaning paired restrictions may be used more often.
The new paired rules restrict setnet fishing time to no more than 48 hours of fishing time per week when the sportfishery is set to no bait. If the fishery goes to no retention of fish longer than 34 inches, setnetters would be limited to no more than 36 hours of fishing per week, and if it goes to catch-and-release only, the limit would be 24 hours of fishing per week. If the sportfishery for kings closed, so would the East Side setnetters.
Setnetters have long argued against the paired restrictions, saying it is not an equal burden because when they lose time, they lose opportunity, while commercial guides can still operate and make money on no bait or on catch-and-release fishing.
East Side setnetters harvest kings at a higher rate than the drift gillnet commercial fishery does, in part because king salmon migrate along the shore on the way back to the river, but they primarily take sockeye salmon.
As they’ve lost fishing opportunity, the value of the setnet sites and permits has gone down. In 1990, the value for Cook Inlet setnet permits reached a high of $98,514 per permit; by 2019, they were worth approximately $19,500 per permit, according to the state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
The decline in value has been relatively steady since the 1990s, when it climbed after large runs of salmon in the 1980s in Cook Inlet pushed the value of the catch up for commercial fishermen. Some setnetters would like to sell their permits out permanently, taking the lump sum rather than hoping the profit margin will improve.
The bill would buy back up to 200 permits on Cook Inlet’s East Side, defined under a new administrative area outlined in the bill, for $260,000 each, minus the administrative costs. The site would then close permanently, ultimately reducing the fleet by about half.
The goal of the bill would be to both reduce the number of nets in the water and make the remaining sites more profitable for those who choose to stay. All buybacks would be voluntary, and the program would still have to be approved by the permitholders by a vote.
Micciche said there was some confusion last year and invited lawmakers to educate themselves on how the fishery and the bill work. The bill would not provide funding; it would establish the vehicle for fishermen to start researching funding, he said. Until the bill passes, they can’t approach potential funding sources.
“In the meantime, they’re watching their livelihoods erode from beneath them,” he said.
On Feb. 21, Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak, signed on as a co-sponsor, but then reversed course and removed his name about two weeks later, on March 3. Micciche said as far as he knew, Stevens still thought the buyback program was a good idea. Stevens’ office didn’t return a request for comment.
At previous hearings, senators raised concerns about the proposed amount for each buyout and fishermen trying to game the system; during public comment, stakeholders objected to the bill because of the precedent of the Legislature getting involved in Cook Inlet’s messy fisheries politics, because of the closing of waters, and because of the lack of clearly identified funding in the bill.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].