Cook Inlet setnet buyback bill again stalls in Legislature

A bill that would buy out commercial fishermen from the beleaguered Upper Cook Inlet fishery is again stalled in the Alaska Legislature.

Senate Bill 82, sponsored by Sen. Jesse Bjorkman, R-Nikiski, would create a buyout program for commercial setnet fishermen on the east side of Cook Inlet. The approximately 450 setnetters there have been increasingly struggling economically because of repeated closures in the last decade and conflict between user groups around the Kenai River, especially as the king salmon runs there dwindle.

Bjorkman was elected in 2022, but the bill predates that — it’s a new version of a bill sponsored by former Sen. Peter Micciche, who previously held Bjorkman’s seat. Setnetters have been seeking the Legislature’s authorization for a buyback program there since about 2017, but efforts to push a bill through the Legislature have been repeatedly stuck in committees because of concerns about funding, parameters for participation and gridlock in the Legislature over more contentious issues.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, chair of the Senate Resources Committee, said in a hearing for the bill April 17 that “I’ve got all the faith in the world you’re going to get it over the top this (session).”

Bjorkman said his version of the bill has not changed much from Micciche’s previous bill except for a few wording updates. The idea is still to use about $52 million in federal funds to pay for the buyback, which would be administered by the state.

“For decades there has been an unhealthy tension between commercial setnet fishermen who fish on the east side of Cook Inlet and other user groups on the Kenai and Kasilof Rivers,” he said in his sponsor statement for the bill. “This legislation will help alleviate a significant proportion of that tension.”

The bill would make several changes to the Upper Cook Inlet fishery for setnetters. Currently, permit holders can fish anywhere as long as they have a shore lease in the area. The bill would change that by splitting off the Upper Subdistrict — the area along the shore of the Kenai Peninsula from Nikiski to Ninilchik — into an exclusive zone, where new permits could not move in. The buyback program itself would be a lottery for anyone who wanted to participate, capping the total number of permits being bought at about half the fishery.

The current purchase price in the bill is set at $260,000 per permit, which was drawn from an average of several years of earning per permit.

Senators at the April 17 committee hearing asked some clarifying questions about the bill, but did not offer any explicit support or condemnation. In a second hearing before the Senate Resources Committee on April 21, Ken Coleman, a longtime setnetter and president of the Eastside Consolidation Association, said the buyback would benefit all user groups by reducing the pressure from too many fishermen on a scarce resource.

“We think that this is going to affect all the user groups in a positive way and we want to work collaboratively with those folks,” he said. “Passage of this (bill) would be helpful with that too.”

Coleman said the program has received broad support in the setnet fleet, though not all of them want to participate. Participation in the buyback itself would be voluntary — while some are ready to be bought out, others want to keep their permits for the potential to continue fishing and for personal historical reasons. Some families have been setnetting on the same stretches of beach for generations.

During the hearing, several setnetters called in to testify in support of the bill, saying it offered hope to a fishery that has become increasingly uneconomical. Starting up for the season is expensive, and with fluctuating management, setnetters may only be open a few times. Last year, some only fished a handful of times in the whole season. This year, they won’t fish at all, after the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced a closure for king salmon fishing on the Kenai that triggered a complete closure of the east side setnet fishery.

Gary Hollier, another longtime Kenai area setnetter, noted that most setnetters are Alaska residents. The bill doesn’t come with significant state money attached to it, so it’s frustrating that the bill has been stalled for about four years, he said.

“I find it kind of appalling that the Legislature wants to help Alaska residents and this doesn’t get out of the Senate Finance Committee,” he said. “I just can’t believe it. This is a win-win for everybody.”

The bill was last heard in the Senate Resources Committee on April 28. With the Legislature’s regular session set to end soon, the bill had no upcoming hearings scheduled.

Contact Elizabeth Earl at [email protected].

05/19/2023 - 5:18pm