Inlet fish war leads to failure for anti-bycatch resolution

JUNEAU — What was supposed to be a two-fisted verbal whack at trawler bycatch of Alaska chinook salmon had one hand tied behind its back when a House resolution aimed at federal managers fell victim to the Cook Inlet salmon war.

The Senate twin, SR 5, passed 18-0 on April 8, calls for a 50 percent reduction in the chinook bycatch limits. The Bering Sea Aleutian Islands pollock fishery operates under an effective limit of 47,951 kings and a hard cap of 60,000. The pollock fleet is limited to 25,000 in the Gulf of Alaska, but draggers chasing other species there operate under no effective limit in large part due to the lack of reliable observer data.

SR 5 requests the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to cut the pollock caps by at least 50 percent, set meaningful limits on the Gulf non-pollock fleet and to require 100 percent observer coverage. The council is scheduled to decide on the non-pollock fleet Gulf bycatch cap at its June meeting in Juneau.

A “joint resolution” is the standard vehicle for expressions of the legislature’s “will, wish, view, opinion, sympathy or request ... for addresses outside the state,” according to its Uniform Rules. The separate resolutions were introduced to make sure the feds got the message, according to Rep. Paul Seaton, a Homer Republican and chairman of the House Fisheries Committee, which sponsored HR 6.

“In a state where we enjoy fighting over fish regularly, this resolution represents an issue where we are all united,” said Sen. Peter Micciche a Soldotna Republican before the Senate vote.

Three days earlier, Seaton withdrew HR 6 after Rep. Bill Stoltze released a four-page amendment minutes before the House vote would have occurred.

For the second time in less than a week, Stoltze charged that the Board of Fisheries is tilted in favor of the seafood industry and against the vast majority of the state’s population.

“At least the focus and concern of my colleagues, from the Mat-Su valley, and from Anchorage and from the Interior, anybody that’s not on the coast, the management decisions are biased against them,” Stoltze said under “special orders,” the period at the end of each floor session when members may comment on any subject.

He also seemed to accuse the House of a conspiracy to ignore the desires of the public after no members objected to the withdrawal of the resolution.

“I think that speaks volumes of why nobody wanted a recorded vote on that issue, because I think there’s a silent majority of Alaskans who are shut out of that process and we’re their representatives so we won’t talk about that on the floor, I guess, this session,” Stoltze continued.

The resolution, which had been the subject of two Fisheries Committee hearings, was focused entirely on trawl bycatch and directed only to the North Pacific council.

Stoltze’s amendment called on the Board of Fisheries to “reduce chinook bycatch in the Cook Inlet by setting new limit on setnet fisheries.”

It also declared, with no supporting evidence, that both trawlers and Cook Inlet commercial harvesters show “little urgency” in using gear that would let chinook escape their nets.

The Senate resolution took a more cordial tone and said it “acknowledges and appreciates” the trawl industry’s past and continued efforts to reduce bycatch.

“This resolution does not discourage trawl fishing in Alaska,” Micciche said on the Senate floor.

As co-chairman of the House Finance Committee, Stoltze is one of the most powerful members of the legislature and a senior member of its largest regional delegation. In the 40-member House, 22 lawmakers are from Anchorage and the Mat-Su Borough, including 16 majority Republicans.

Stoltze said repeatedly that he drafted his amendment out of “total frustration at having no other way to express the feelings on an issue.”

Reps. Lynn Gattis, Eric Feige and Craig Johnson, all Republicans from Wasilla, Chickaloon and Anchorage, respectively, are members of the Fisheries Committee. None offered amendments to the resolution during two hearings there and none spoke in support of Stoltze during the debate.

Responding to Stoltze, Seaton said, “I hate to get into the fish wars, especially on the floor. That’s why we were withdrawing this.”

He added that Stoltze’s charges against Cook Inlet commercial harvesters, and the failure of Board of Fisheries proposals from Mat-Su residents seeking stock reallocations are not based on accurate information.

“The problem is what’s being addressed there is counter to everything that’s known to the Board of Fish. That’s why they haven’t prevailed there,” Seaton said.

He noted that the 2012 Upper Susitna Chinook run was a failure even though drift and setnet fisheries intercepted no kings because they had been “totally shut down” after the Department of Fish and Game underestimated chinook returns by 30 percent.

“People have to look at the real reasons, not made-up reasons,” Seaton said.


Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected].


04/11/2013 - 12:07pm