AJOC EDITORIAL: State should foot the bill for salmon disaster

Effective Jan. 22, the federal government made official what has been the policy since statehood in 1959: Alaska is in charge of its salmon fisheries.

The first fishery management plan approved after the passage of the original Magnuson Act in 1976 was the Alaska salmon FMP delegating that responsibility to the Department of Fish & Game. After revisions to what later became the Magnuson-Stevens Act were passed in 2006, all FMPs were required to be updated within five years to meet new requirements for setting annual catch limits and accountability measures.

The result was the North Pacific Fishery Management Council amending the salmon FMP in 2011 to officially remove waters near Cook Inlet, Prince William Sound and the Alaska Peninsula from federal control. The only state-managed salmon fishery that officially remains within the federal FMP is the Southeast salmon troll fishery that must be managed in accord with the Pacific Salmon Treaty between the U.S. and Canada.

After poor chinook returns to the Yukon, Kuskokwim, Kenai and Mat-Su Valley rivers in 2012 severely restricted or shut down fishing by subsistence, commercial and sport users, Gov. Sean Parnell sought and received federal disaster declarations from the U.S. Department of Commerce under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

However, on Jan. 14, the U.S. House of Representatives refused to approve $150 million in fisheries disaster funding passed by the Senate in December to cover losses in Alaska, New England and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Alaska Congressional delegation has vowed to keep up the fight to secure disaster funding, but the thought from this perspective is that it is time for the State of Alaska to step up and take care of its own.

When its citizens are hurting, a state with a $16 billion savings account and a AAA credit rating should not be twiddling its thumbs waiting on a bankrupt and dysfunctional federal government to send $20 million or so our way. Even if Congress were to approve the money, it will be left to National Marine Fisheries Service to determine how and where the money is distributed.

For a state that constantly complains about federal interference in our affairs — and that has expressly told the U.S. government to butt out of our salmon management — it makes no sense to go begging for some cash from Uncle Sugar when Alaska is in the best position financially to assess losses and distribute aid.

We are only a few months away from the first salmon openers, and nobody is forecasting a sudden rebound in chinook salmon runs. Will the State of Alaska’s plan from here forward be to ask the feds for money every time a salmon run is weak?

If the state does not want to set a precedent by aiding salmon-dependent communities in this case, it is no better a precedent to repeatedly seek federal disaster aid for a fishery that is wholly managed by the state.

It is one thing to seek assistance based on federal responsibilities to restrict subsistence fishing on the Yukon in order to meet our treaty obligations with Canada, as was the case in 2009.

It is quite another to ask the feds to make Cook Inlet setnetters or Kenai River lodge owners whole when they were shut down based on management decisions created through the state’s public Board of Fisheries process and carried out by ADFG.

Unlike the New England groundfish fishery, which is completely under federal jurisdiction, Alaska controls salmon management from the spawning grounds to 200 miles from shore with a six-member majority on the North Pacific council.

Yet despite this majority since Magnuson was passed, it wasn’t until more than 120,000 chinooks were taken in the Bering Sea pollock fishery in 2007 that the North Pacific council passed a bycatch cap that took effect in 2011.

Similarly in the Gulf of Alaska, it wasn’t until that pollock fleet took some 50,000 chinooks in 2010 that a cap was passed that took effect midway through last year.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act certainly does include a provision to seek fishery disaster aid based on natural disasters, undetermined causes or manmade effects such as the BP oil spill. One of the conditions, though, is that the disaster must affect “a major fishery managed by the Council.”

For more than 35 years since Magnuson passed, the State of Alaska has managed salmon with a fair share of success, and has not been shy about bragging on itself for having the best fishery management in the world.

When things go badly, from natural causes, mismanagement or a combination of both, the state needs to accept responsibility for those outcomes as well. Passing the buck — and the hat — to the feds is the wrong way to make things right for those who need help now.

01/24/2013 - 6:35am