Lt. Governor Mead Treadwell rejected a proposed ballot initiative aimed at banning commercial setnetting throughout most of the state Monday. The language in the initiative didn’t agree with a previous Alaska court ruling.
The proposed initiative would have been on the 2016 ballot. Voters would have decided whether or not to ban commercial setnetting in urban areas of the state, including Cook Inlet, where commercial setnetting makes up a big chunk of the economy. It was proposed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. Its main concern is keeping dwindling king salmon stocks out of those setnets. The group’s spokesperson, Joe Conners, was not available for comment Monday, but when the group announced its effort back in November Conners said the regular process for changing management practices and conserving king salmon isn’t working.
“The Board of Fish gets deluded by the need to continue the setnet fishery because it’s a way of life, you know, whatever, whatever… But the bottom line is, everything indicates we have historically low numbers and we cannot continue to have this wall of death functioning.”
Sportfishers on the river and setnetters out in the Inlet have had their fishing time severely restricted the past two years in an effort to preserve those king salmon, which are coming back later in the season and in smaller numbers.
In its memo to the Lt. Governor, the state Department of Law cited a 1996 court decision that said appropriating fish to different user groups could not be done by ballot initiative. There were two objectives with that case. One was to prevent an electoral majority from giving itself access to a state resource. The other was to preserve the Legislature’s power to make decisions about allocation. The proposed initiative violated both those objectives. It “removed the Board of Fisheries’ discretion to make allocation decisions in times of shortages.”
This is certainly a time of shortage for king salmon. In 2013 17,028 kings returned to the Kenai River, barely making the sustainable escapement goal of 15,000-30,000.
The ban would have only applied to commercial setnetters in urban areas. Not subsistence users or in rural areas. But in practice, it would have mainly applied to setnetters in Cook Inlet. In short, the ban would have reallocated salmon from commercial fisheries in the Inlet to non-commercial, in-river users.
Opposition to the ballot proposal was immediate. Various commercial fishing groups spoke against it, and both the Kenai city council and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly adopted resolutions against it. Calls for comment from the commercial-friendly Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association were not returned in time for this story, but its president, Rob Williams, testified at that Assembly meeting in December. He called the move “ballot box biology”.
“For 27 years we’ve made the goal for the late-run fish on the Kenai River. Fifteen of those years, we exceeded the upper end of the goal. And right now, our managers have the option to reign us in with time and area restrictions like they’ve been doing in the past years. The goal will be met.”
In a news release Monday, the executive director of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, Clark Penney, called the decision by the Lt. Governor “puzzling”. That group is evaluating a possible legal challenge.
Other changes in the management of king salmon in Cook Inlet could be made next month. The Board of Fish will take up those issues, and hundreds of proposals to deal with the problem when it meets in Anchorage.