Commercial groups rip board during Cook Inlet 'fish week'

JUNEAU — The ethics, expertise and ability of the Board of Fisheries members were questioned during an unusual three-day hearing on Cook Inlet salmon issues held by the Senate Resources Committee in the last week of March.

The Department of Fish and Game was criticized by the City of Kenai, among others, for its management of the Peninsula’s personal use sockeye fishery and for ignoring damage to spawning beds and other critical habitat from dipnetters moving up the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to escape the crowds.

Committee Chair Cathy Giessel, R-Anchorage, called the hearings held March 24, 26 and 28 the “Cook Inlet Salmon Dialogue.” The hearings included the perspective of 12 stakeholder groups in the state’s most hotly contested fisheries, followed by an ADFG review of Inlet stocks and the dizzying, overlapping plans to manage them.

Under Giessel’s rigidly tight hearing schedules, there was no dialogue between the stakeholders and limited time for lawmaker questions, and she indicated no interest in debate.

“I have been told this is a brave thing to do. I believe, as we saw Monday (March 24), we can have productive dialogues and stay above the fray,” she said at the start of the March 26 session.

In the opening presentation, Kenai City Manager Rich Koch said ADFG is ignoring the city’s rights under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation Act and advertises sensitive city-owned land as open to dipnetters.

For three years, the city has asked the department to close the fishery overnight to allow city vehicles to empty portable toilets and perform other maintenance.

“To date we’ve been unsuccessful in asking that,” Koch said, noting that Kenai spends more than $20,000 during the three-week peak of the dipnet fishery to rake fish carcasses to the waterline.

“The city does not make a profit from the fishery. I’ve heard that stated time and time again and that is not the case ... We are at the breaking point to be able to respond,” Koch said.

Among several organizations calling for a professional Board of Fisheries with its own research staff, the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition called for legislation for a paid board, still chosen by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature but “selected for their scientific or socio-economic expertise in the area of fishery management and research.”

The group represents private sports fishermen and has 10 former state or federal fisheries biologists on its board.

“It has become apparent to many that our current Board of Fish process does not possess the technical knowledge and sometimes internal integrity to accomplish decisions based on science and available technical data,” said KAFC spokesman Dwight Kramer.

He was among several speakers who said some board members arrived at the February Cook Inlet session with preconceived agendas.

“The current Board of Fish process is swayed too easily by the most prominent and powerful groups and often give in to political pressure, innuendo and fabricated statements rather than scientific information,” Kramer said.

Amber Every, one of three fishers who spoke for the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, said the embattled commercial setnetters group has “a lot of questions and a little less faith” following the February meeting.

“We need your help to return our community from a community of conflict to one of cooperation,” she added.

The United Cook Inlet Drift Association took aim at the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission as well as the board.

“Nowhere else in Alaska will you find a borough-sponsored sportfishing advocacy group writing commercial fishery management plans. This begs the question, ‘Why don’t the plans work?’” asked UCIDA spokesman Jeff Fox, who retired as Cook Inlet area ADFG management biologist in 2011.

“The board process was influenced by groups pushing allocative agendas under the guise of conservation,” Fox added, without specifying the organizations.

Arni Thomson, of the Kenai-based processor/harvester group Alaska Salmon Alliance, called the borough commission’s presentation on Cook Inlet salmon problems “a case study in Alaska fisheries ideology.”

Two days earlier, Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission member Bruce Knowles gave the presentation, which had been presented in February at its exclusive session with the House and Senate subcommittees writing the ADFG budget.

“Without a doubt we’ve seen a sea change in recent years how certain influential people have interacted with the board and Department of Fish and Game,” Thomson said.

Generally satisfied with the board’s decisions, sport groups were in less of an attack mode.

The Kenai River Sportfishing Association began its presentation with an emotional “Save Our Kings” video in the style of animal protection group pitches.

“I really hope that there’s still fish around when I’m 40 years old,” said a boy identified as 14-year old “Jackson” in the video.

Ricky Gease, KRSA executive director, said commercial fishing is volume-based while the sport industry “wants responsible in-season management” allowing anglers to book trips “any time.”

“The Board of Fisheries did a good job of putting additional tools in the tool box for the board to use,” Gease said.

Rod Arno, Alaska Outdoor Council executive director, called for more legislative influence on the Fish Board.

“The department is clearly part of the executive branch, but the Board of Fish is an extension of the legislature. This is supposed to be the people’s board, enabled through you ... You decide who you want to be in charge of allocation,” Arno said.

Arno’s slide presentation on Upper Cook Inlet salmon began with a chart indicating commercial harvesters take 98.2 percent of all state fish. Questioned by Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River, Arno acknowledged that it the figure included Bristol Bay sockeye and Bering Sea whitefish stocks that have never attracted sport fisheries.

The final public presentation came from Robert Ruffner, executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, which he described as a “non-allocative” organization engaged in research, restoration and education, including for the Mat-Su Borough.

Ruffner said the state has lost the battle to remove Northern pike from Southcentral waters.

“We can’t fix this. We’re not going to be able to eradicate pike in the Mat-Su. We’re going to have to keep spending money from now on to control pike up there,” Ruffner said.

“Intensive” bank and boat fisheries in Peninsula rivers are causing damage that budget cuts have left ADFG unable to keep up with, Ruffner added.

He said the Department of Environmental Conservation is ignoring boat fuel pollution levels in lakes and rivers much like agencies did on the Kenai River until his organization expressed its concerns to the Environmental Protection Agency.

“Then the finger pointing stopped and there’s no more hydrocarbon problem in the Kenai River,” Ruffner said.

Whether the sessions will produce any responses to the concerns raised is uncertain. Giessel emphasized that the sessions had no link to any bill or budget item, but said she would likely schedule more in future years.

The majority of the City of Kenai presentation focused on dipnet fishery issues, including its $2.1 million capital project request to build new access to the south Kenai River shore. That was the lone item linked to any pending legislative action.

“I think we have more information to ask more intelligent questions in the future, going forward with the allocation type issues, as we hear from constituents and the different user groups,” Giessel said after “Fish Week” ended.

Sen. Click Bishop, R-Fairbanks, also a member of the Senate Finance Committee, said he would consider requesting more money to kill more pike and remove beaver dams in that were blamed by several speakers from outside the Mat-Su Borough for decimating sockeye stocks in lakes that formerly produced hundreds of thousands of the prized species.

Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, pressed almost every speaker who criticized the Board of Fisheries or other participants in Cook Inlet’s salmon war for more focus on solutions rather than enemies.

“What I see as a primary issue is that we all work together in this building with the agencies, with the Board of Fish, to ensure that we do what’s necessary to return to normal abundance in streams wherever possible,” said Micciche, a driftnetter in the commercial sockeye fishery, said following the sessions.

“In the meantime, if we continue to not focus on the causes and we just point fingers at our neighbors it will take longer to get back to normal abundance in my view,” Micciche said.

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

Updated: 
11/21/2016 - 9:12am