New Attack on Cook Inlet Setnetters

A new sportfishing group on Alaska’s Kenai Peninsula is
proposing a ban on commercial set net fishing in areas it identifies as
“urban” part of the state, including Cook Inlet.
The announcement from the Alaska Fisheries Conservation
Alliance Inc., whose spokesman said their effort is being funded by wealthy
sport fishing advocate Bob Penny, drew a quick retort from the Kenai Peninsula
Fishermen’s Association, which represents commercial setnetters in that region.
The Alaska Department of Law must decide within 60 days
whether to allow backers of the sport fishing group’s proposed ballot
initiative to begin collecting the required 31,000 signatures to put the
measure on August 2016 primary election ballot.
The initiative calls for banning commercial set netting
around Anchorage, including the Kenai Peninsula Borough and Matanuska Susitna
Borough, Fairbanks, Juneau, Valdez and Ketchikan.
“I’m rather confident it would pass,” said Joe
Connors, owner of an upscale fish charter service and lodge, and president of
the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. Connors is also a member of the
Kenai River Professional Guide Association, and Kenai River Sport Fishing
Conners said he is concerned about conservation of the king
salmon, a subject that has prompted heated discussion before the North Pacific
Fishery Management Council, which continues to wrestle with the huge incidental
catch of salmon in groundfish fisheries in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska.
No mention of this significant king salmon bycatch is made in the AFCA
In fact, there has been much statewide concern over the
dwindling numbers of king salmon, so much so that on the heels of a conference
on that issue Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell’s proposed budget for fiscal year 2014
included $7.5 million for Chinook salmon research.
Conners issued a statement saying set nets are
“indiscriminate killing machines and it is time they are banned in urban
areas of Alaska.”
The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents
commercial setnetters on the Kenai Peninsula, has denounced the AFCA’s plans to
promote the ballot initiative as “the latest incarnation of Bob Penney’s
long-running effort to put more than 720 families and small business owners who
work in Cook Inlet’s setnet fishery out of business.”
In a statement issued Nov. 8, KPFA said that acting under the
guise of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Kenai King Conservation
Alliance and now the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, Penny has spent
decades trying to reallocate king salmon caught in East Side setnets to
in-river guides and lodge owners.”
Penney, a founding member of the Kenai River Sportfishing
Association, is also a director of AFCA.
Many king salmon runs around the state are in a cycle of low
abundance, but the Kenai River king salmon is not a stock of concern,”
KPFA said. “In fact the Kenai has met its minimum escapement goal every
year for the last 27 years, and exceeded the upper end of the escapement goal
in 15 of those years.”
KPFA also took Connors to task personally, saying that as a
former setnetter and chairman of the Kenai River special management advisory
board, Connors should know that the setnet’s low 13 percent exploitation rate
of Kenai River kings is nearly insignificant when companied to the threat that
these fish face due to “the completely unbridled growth of the in-river
sport fishery and the unabated expansion of in-river commercial operations and
powerboat use within their spawning grounds.”
KPFA said that AFCA should instead focus on the state’s
failure to conduct mandated habitat research and protection, and that the Kenai
River faces possible federal intervention due to pollution problems.
Rob Williams, president of KPFA, said that while commercial
fishermen have to count every king salmon they catch, sport fishermen fishing
in-river in the Cook Inlet area do not have to count “jack” kings,
the one-ocean fish under 30 inches, who are also not counted by the area’s
Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar counter because of their relatively
small size. “These guys are just trying to circumvent the whole Board of
Fish process and put extra pressure on Board of Fish members,” he said.
Williams also said that nets used by the commercial
setnetters selectively catch smaller kings and that they don’t get a lot of the
larger Chinooks, the ones prized by clients of the charter fishing industry.
Contrary to the assertions set forth by the sponsors of the
initiative, setnets are highly selective harvest tools that effectively target
sockeye and pink salmon, KPFA said in its statement. King salmon comprise less
than one percent of the East Side setnet catch.
The Kenai River’s early king run occurs in June, and 100
percent of that run reaches the Kenai River before the setnet fishery begins.
In July, when setnets are fishing, 87 percent of the late run kings reach the
Kenai River. The Kenai River’s early king run has struggled to meet escapement
goals and should be the primary focus of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation
Alliance’s efforts, according to KPFA.
The commercial setnetters association also noted that 84
percent of the setnet permits for the Cook Inlet setnet fishery are owned by
Alaska residents, and 80 percent of those Alaskans live on the Kenai Peninsula.
“Revenues from the fishery don’t just support fishing
families and deckhands. They trickle down to a web of support businesses
including fish processors, fish tenders, truck drivers, mechanics, welders,
fuel sellers, boat builders, grocery and hardware stores,” they said.
“The loss of the fishery would do irreparable harm not only to the
fishermen who would lose their livelihoods but to the Kenai Peninsula’s economy
as well.”