Cook Inlet setnetting has been an integral part of the Kenai Peninsula’s economy for more than a century, employing hundreds of hard working families who spend their summers harvesting a living from the inlet’s robust salmon runs.
Not long after Alaska became a territory of the United States the people who lived along the shores of Cook Inlet learned how to reliably harvest the great salmon runs that return each summer and launched an industry around that catch. Canneries were built, merchants, boat wrights and fishing supply stores set up shop, and later mechanics, welders, truckers and others came and helped grow the economy of the Peninsula. Even as other industries like gas and oil development, tourism and sportfishing have enhanced the economy, the commercial salmon harvest remains one of the single biggest factors in the region’s economy.
Over the last several decades the slice of the salmon harvest taken by setnet businesses has gotten thinner as new user groups have entered the fishery and demanded their share of this public resource, but with robust runs that commercial fishermen have nurtured over the years, there has always been enough to satisfy the needs of all.
Now, a small group of greedy Kenai River sportfishing guides, lodge and private land owners are trying to put an initiative before Alaska voters to ban setnet fishing in Cook Inlet. Though the initiative backers claim they want to conserve salmon, they are lying. Eliminating setnets would do little more than decimate more than 400 family fishing businesses and the support industry that revolves around their harvest. Elimination of setnets also will overwhelm the carrying capacity of the Kenai and other inlet rivers, meaning future returns will be smaller and fewer fish will be available for all. If the initiative passes, it will not enhance the salmon runs, but it will enhance the pocketbooks of those sponsoring the initiative.
I think the worst aspect of the initiative effort is its timing. Low Kenai River king salmon abundance has dramatically affected the way the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has managed the setnet fishery. In 2012 we were allowed almost no fishing time – most East Side setnet fishermen made about 10 percent of their annual income, and many made less. Ironically, later in the year the Alaska Department of Fish and Game announced that the king run came in late and nearly broached the upper end of the escapement goal, and admitted that the closures were unnecessary.
In 2013, concern over Kenai Kings again forced the department’s hand and setnetters carried the conservation burden again, fishing just a fraction of the time we should have had our nets in the water.
This 2014 season, which is just now winding down was another disaster, with fishermen south of the Blanchard Line having a below average catch, and those north of the line fishing just two periods, and catching something less than ten percent of their average.
Is it any surprise that the initiative backers chose to launch their campaign to put us out of business in the midst of these crisis years, when our ability to fight such an effort, let alone pay our bills, is diminished?
This selfish and myopic ban hits home for me: My wife and I and our two teen-aged children are setnetters. Our business, our income, our investment in boats, motors, equipment, land and gear will all be eliminated and rendered valueless because a small group of well financed, dishonest and self-serving the group of people want what we now have a right to harvest.
Worse, it’s taken the joy out of the fishing season and replaced it with fear for the future of this valuable, rich and colorful fishery. I wouldn’t wish working under this threat on anyone, yet the very premise of this initiative, and the recent court ruling allowing it to move forward, puts every fishery and resource extraction industry in the state of Alaska under the threat of elimination by small, self-interested special interest groups.
If you don’t think a small, well-financed special interest group can mount a similar misinformation campaign and do the same to your fishery or your industry, think again.
Andy Hall is the president of the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association.