Board votes down personal-use priority proposal

  • Several thousand dipnetters converge at the mouth of the Kenai River to catch a share of the late run of sockeye salmon headed in this 2013 photo. At its recent statewide issues meeting, the Board of Fisheries voted down a proposal to give personal-use fisheries an allocation priority over other users in nonsubsistence areas. (Photo/File/AJOC)

The Board of Fisheries has voted down a controversial proposal that would have given personal-use fisheries priority in its allocation criteria as well as two proposals to change the way the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sets and manages escapement goals.

All three proposals attracted testimony from stakeholders across the state, both for and against, during the board’s Statewide Finfish and Supplemental Issues meeting in Anchorage from March 9-12.

Though the board turned down several proposals related to escapement goals and allocation priorities, the members indicated they’d be open to longer discussions on those subjects in the future.

Proposal 171, submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, would have changed the criteria in the board’s allocation policy to include a priority for personal-use fisheries.

The personal-use fisheries in the state, most notably the Chitina, Kenai River, Kasilof River and Fish Creek dipnet fisheries, attract thousands of participants every year. Because they do not have participation limits and harvest sockeye, a valuable species to the other user groups, they are a frequent source of allocation conflict, especially in Cook Inlet.

The Board of Fisheries uses the allocation criteria as a checklist for considerations when making allocative decisions about fisheries issues. Subsistence users always get a priority, but in nonsubsistence areas, the board can weigh the different user groups and factors equally.

In its proposal, KRSA asked that the board rewrite its allocation criteria in nonsubsistence areas with a number of changes, including considering the number of residents and nonresidents participating in the fishery, the importance of each fishery to provide residents with fish for personal and family consumption and the history of the fishery within the last 20 years.

During public testimony at the meeting, KRSA fishery biology consultant Kevin Delaney told the board that the criteria does not block the board from making decisions in favor of other user groups but would add weight to the criteria when making allocative decisions in nonsubsistence areas.

“If the desire is to prioritize historical use as it has been, rather than generating broad public support and maximizing economic value, that decisions would still be possible,” he said. “It would just be transparently obvious that that’s the reason.”

Large numbers of commercial fishermen, particularly from Cook Inlet, came out to oppose the proposal. Many cited feelings of being marginalized by regulations in Cook Inlet, where families have generations of commercial fishing history, while others cited concerns about the biological wisdom of prioritizing the personal-use fisheries.

Duncan Fields, who represented the communities of Ouzinkie and Old Harbor on Kodiak and as the chairman of the Kodiak Salmon Workgroup, testified against proposal 171, saying it would tie the hands of future boards on allocation decisions and that it would set a precedent for allocation based on the number of users.

“That goes to the very heart of what we believe in as Americans with a constitutional government where we protect aspects of minority rights, people who are not in the majority,” he said. “We have a common use clause, which means that the resources are to be used for the good of all the people, not just those who happen to have a majoritarian point of view. I think I’m most offended by the change in language that would change your criteria based on sort of a numerical hierarchy.”

The board voted down the proposal 2-5, with members Israel Payton and Reed Morisky supporting it. Payton, who lives in the Matanuska Valley, said many people in the area have “given up” on policies improving the quality of their fisheries. The board is charged with making allocation decisions, which are difficult, but it’s important to consider the needs of a growing population in Cook Inlet, he said.

“I sympathize with commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet who have a long history in commercial fishing that feel like they’re getting squeezed out,” he said. “But the population has grown … we’re not providing the opportunity for that growing need.”

Board member Fritz Johnson noted there are biological issues in the Susitna River impacting salmon returns there as well, and there are ways to remedy that using board processes, but said he would oppose the proposal because of the majority of users being against it.

Both Morisky and board member Robert Ruffner noted that they would be willing to discuss the issue further in the future, as it’s a common issue brought up between user groups.

It continued the thread of the meeting, as the board held an entire special meeting Friday to discuss issues related to hatcheries. No regulatory action was taken, but the board listened to public comment and information from ADFG about current hatchery programs and research to gather more information after several years of the public raising concerns about hatchery operations in the state.

Two other proposals, 169 and 170, also raised long-term issues. Both dealt with the way ADFG sets salmon escapement goals in rivers, which impact how managers are able to open fishing and regulate harvest.

The department sets a variety of different types of goals, including sustainable escapement goals, or SEG, biological escapement goals, or BEG, and optimum escapement goals, or OEG, and develops them based on the data available.

Proposal 169 would have rewritten the state’s policy for developing escapement goals and required the department to release them earlier, before in-cycle Board of Fisheries proposals are due, and proposal 170 would have changed how escapement goals are set and required management targets based on maximum sustained yield.

The board turned down both proposals unanimously, but several members noted that the escapement goal setting process may be due for a review. Currently, the department reviews and sets escapement goals, presenting information to the board at each three-year meeting cycle, but the board does not necessarily vote on setting individual escapement goals.

Ruffner noted that the process of how Fish and Game decides whether to set an OEG, BEG or SEG can be confusing and could use clarification.

“I think if we ignore this, I think in a couple of years we’re going to be right where we are with hatchery issues, where we have to do something,” he said. “I’d much prefer to get ahead of that now with a committee process or something.”

Jensen said he agreed with Ruffner about the long-term considerations on the escapement goal policies. Payton said he thought the escapement goal policy is one of the stronger documents the department has but there could be some improvements to the board’s action on goals.

“Process-wise, I think we could work on some things,” he said.

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Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
03/13/2019 - 9:56am

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