Personal use priority bill stirs reaction among public

A pair of bills in the Alaska Legislature would create a hierarchy of importance for Alaska state fisheries, with subsistence at the top and commercial and sport fishing at the bottom.

Senate Bill 42, introduced by Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and House Bill 110, introduced by Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, together titled the “Alaskans-First Fishing Act,” would direct the Board of Fisheries to place restrictions on sport and commercial fisheries before putting restrictions on personal use fisheries when the harvest of a stock or species is limited to achieve an escapement goal.

The focal point for the act’s support and opposition are the popular Upper Cook Inlet personal use salmon fisheries in the Kenai, Kasilof, and Fish Creek rivers that fuel allocation and gear conflict battles in the Board of Fisheries process.

The rationale behind the act is that personal use carries more urgency than commercial or sport fishing, as it was intended to provide Alaskans with equal shares of a common property for direct consumption. Subsistence, which currently receives first priority from the Board of Fisheries as per state law, would still trump personal use in the event of restrictions.

The opposition’s rationale denies an equivalency between personal use and subsistence. Detractors of the bill say the personal use fishery was created by the Board of Fisheries in 1982 in order to distribute surplus fish in times of high abundance, and was not intended as a makeshift subsistence fishery.

During a public comment hearing for Stoltze’s bill on April 1 in the Senate Resources Committee, nearly 40 people waited to deliver testimony by phone, and another six stood in the room. Reaction was mixed. More testified in opposition to the bill than against, though the public comment period was cut short for time before all callers had the opportunity to speak.

Stoltze was there to introduce the bill, and said he’d been encouraged by the public and state response to a bill he insists only tries to ensure food security for Alaskans.

“It puts in place the constitutional values reflective of the people of Alaska,” Stoltze told the committee. “The commissioner of fish and game (Sam Cotten) has a position of neutrality.”

Supporters argue that the bill merely codifies what should already be a personal use priority, as personal use simply amounts to a non-rural subsistence fishery.

“It’s not really complicated,” said Gary Stevens, board member of the Alaska Outdoor Council. “The personal use fishery is, for all intents and purposes, a subsistence fishery for people who live in non-subsistence areas. Personal use fishery should have a priority over commercial fishery.”

Other supporters insisted on the Board of Fisheries needs to ensure that all Alaskans have continued access to the fish.

“I’d like to thank Sen. Stoltze for sponsoring the bill,” said Anchorage resident Grant Klotz. “As the population grows, so does the demand on the Kenai fishery. This assures that Alaskans will have their share of the resource.”

The commercial fishing industry unanimously opposed the act, which they feel compromises the Board of Fisheries’ ability to allocate according to best available science, carries unknown consequences, and unnecessarily pits user groups against each other when cooperation would be more helpful for sound management.

Clay Beznick, a Ketchikan fisherman, denied that the personal use fishery currently serves a food security purpose and has just as much to do with summer parties, a concern echoed in later testimony.

“I’m kind of disturbed by this piece of legislation. It smells like the south end of a north bound horse,” said Beznick. “I’m all for the people who are dipnetting and harvesting resources to feed the family. But there’s also the person driving a $100,000 camper to drink beer on the Kenai.”

Matt Weiser of Copper River Seafoods said the title “Alaskans-First Fisheries Act” is misleading, as the commercial industry, the state’s largest private employer, is more representative and produces more value.”

“Alaskans cannot afford to reduce income to our state or local government,” Weiser said. “If we really want to put Alaskans first, we would support the industry that pays for services that all Alaskans benefit from and that actually provides the majority of Alaskans with their seafood.”

Both subsistence and personal use are available only to Alaska residents but apply to different classes. Subsistence fish can be used however the fisher sees fit, including trade for money, but personal use is limited to consumption.

Personal use applies to areas that don’t meet the criteria for subsistence; the non-rural areas around Anchorage, Fairbanks, Juneau, Ketchikan, Wasilla, Palmer, Kenai, and Valdez are non-subsistence areas. Personal use allows for harvest methods that are not “customary and traditional use,” and requires a sport permit to participate.

04/08/2015 - 11:54am