|SEAFOOD.COM by John Sackton – February 17, 2014
The Alaska Board of Fish failed to stand up to the recreational lobby, and ended their session on Cook Inlet salmon by taking two measures to penalize commercial sockeye fishing, while doing nothing about changing regulations on sport and dipnet fishing. Yet much of the problems for king salmon come from “in-river” pressure which has grown enormously over the past decade, as well as habitat degradration in higher population areas.
Over time, the issue is the survival of commerical fishing operations in Cook Inlet. In his testimony to the Board, Alaska Salmon Alliance Director Arni Thomson said “the commercial sockeye salmon fishery is the core fishery that is responsible for us being able to maintain plant operations on the Peninsula, and to attract halibut, black cod, and pacific cod from this region, as well as salmon from other areas such as Bristol Bay for processing.
This point was echoed by Jeff Berger, a manager with Copper River Seafoods in Ninilchik. “This effort is clearly an effort to starve out commercial fishing in Cook Inlet and advance the goals of the individuals that initiated the ballot initiative to eliminate gillnetting,” said Berger, in public testimony reported by Margaret Bauman of the Cordova Times.
Berger said in his letter to the board that “when considering management of the fishery, we need the ability to spread the harvest from the beginning of the run to the end. If we have the harvest spread out it gives us a much better quality of product.”
“Remember, the visitor industry has many alternatives and will still be harvesting sockeye,” Berger wrote. “They are not capable of stopping the run and we need the East Side Setnetters to break things up. This needs to be done especially in the early season, but really throughout the season. It makes sense for us to do what we can to spread out the peak for as long as we can.”
The Alaska Salmon Alliance, representing the commercial setnetters and drfitnet salmon harvesters, released a statement charging the Board of Fish Process was broken.
“It has become increasingly evident that this process is broken,” said Arni Thomson, Executive Director of ASA. “It shorts the Alaska public as well as the individuals serving on the Board. We appreciate their hard work and long hours, but with no vetting process for measures and some 250 items to sort through, the process is doomed to fail.”
The Board of Fish process allows anybody in Alaska to submit proposals to change fish and game laws, but does not manage fisheries and lacks a scientific staff. Nor does the Board have a requirement that proposals have credible research behind them to indicate what their impact might be.
“We have witnessed the commercial fleet take a heavily disproportionate hit compared to other user groups. By largely ignoring in-river habitat measures, the Board has marginally increased the in-river experience at the long-term expense of Kenai sockeye populations—a fish rightfully enjoyed by the commercial, personal use and in-river sectors,” said Thomson.
The two major actions included pushing the drift net fishery south to waters they have not traditionally fished, and restricting them from waters off Kenai farther north. With a higher sockeye run predicted in Cook Inlet this year, there is no telling whether this move will work or not.
The second major action was to require shallower setnets, which is aimed at reducing the king salmon bycatch in setnets. The Board also adjusted fishing opening times for setnets.
As the Anchorage suburbs turn into areas much like the lower 48, there is greater pressure on salmon resources, and in particular resentment of the 1972 Alaska constitution that applied limited entry to salmon permits. The net result is that new entrants have to purchase a license, and prices can range from $50,000 to $100,000 or more, just for setnet permits.
Recreational groups charge that the 570 Cook Inlet drift salmon permits represent an unfair allocation compared to the hundreds of thousands of residents of suburban Anchorage who want to use dipnets. Unfortunately, the Board of Fish does not seem to have the will to stand up to this pressure – and has begun chipping away at the foundation of the commerical fishery.
What the Board may not realize, as stated by Thomson, is that to be successful the seafood industry integrates many parts – working on different fisheries in different seasons, and using the stability of some products to finance the operations on other, more riskier products. The net result is the economic value of the whole area is magnified when the commercial sector is healthy. But when the commercial sector is weakened – not through conservation measures but through measures that hollow out the underpinings, a larger economic loss can follow.
Conservation measures are fully supported – they are part of the fishery and what keeps it successful year after year. But disproportionately targeting the conservation measures to the commercial side, when it is in-river recreational pressure that is causing problems, risks bringing to some sections of Alaska the management fiascos that have occured in the lower 48.
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