Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Sport Fishermen Launch 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 drew quick criticism from the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, which represents commercial setnetters.

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.

Joe Connors, owner of an upscale fish charter service and lodge, is president of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. Connors is also a member of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, and Kenai River Sport Fishing Association. Connors said their effort is being funded by wealthy sport fishing advocate Bob Penny.

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.

In fact, there has been so much statewide concern over the dwindling numbers of king salmon 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.

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.”

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.”

United Fishermen of Alaska, the statewide commercial fishing industry trade association, called the proposed initiative a staggering social and economic assault on Alaska’s seafood industry. “Eliminating nets doesn’t target the problem, which is in-river and ocean survival of small Chinook salmon,” UFA said.

The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association 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 circumnavigate the whole Board of Fish process and put extra pressure on Board of Fish members,” he said.

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