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Story Last modified at 9:30 p.m. on Wednesday, February 23, 2011

Board's triennial fish fight begins in Anchorage
Fishermen from Mat-Su to Kenai voice their opinions

BY MATT TUNSETH
Alaska Star

Like that salmon they so cherish, Alaska's fishermen are creatures whose lives revolve around a precise cycle of change.

This three-year cycle is governed not by biology, but by a unique system of management that gives all residents the chance to say their piece in front of the all-powerful Alaska Board of Fisheries, whose sole purpose is to set the state's myriad and complex fishing regulations. It's a complicated process, one that pits user groups against one another in heated battles over who gets the biggest slice of the state's piscatorial pie.

As luck would have it, this year's meeting happens to cover Upper Cook Inlet, a basin around which the majority of the state's population resides and where the biggest battles over fish are fought.

For some, the board process represents a chance to fix problems in urgent need of solutions.

"We need to do something, and we need to do it this Board of Fish," testified Kenai River fishing guide Jim McCormick during the board's second day of public testimony on Feb. 18 at the Egan Center in Anchorage.

McCormick's contention was that not enough salmon – specifically sockeye and large Kenai kings – are making it to their spawning grounds, and that the board needs to enact regulations to help more fish get upstream. He said he's been fishing the Kenai professionally for 17 years, and over the past few years has observed a dramatic decline of fish digging gravel spawning "redds" in the late summer.

"The last three years my heart is so sad," he said.

He didn't specifically say what changes should be made, but numerous proposals put forward this cycle by fishing guides and sport fishing organizations seek to limit the time and areas where commercial fishermen can ply their trade.

Many of McCormick's fellow guides – along with tourism industry representatives – echoed his sentiments. Though most shied away from getting into specifics during their three minutes in front of the board, it was clear many blame the inlet's commercial fleet for reducing the amount of fish available to other user groups.

Jason Votruba is vice president of the Mat-Su Convention and Visitors Bureau board and works as the operations manager at the Deshka Landing in Willow. Votruba told the board that fish stocks in streams in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys have plummeted in recent years, and he seemed to blame commercial drift fishermen for the decline.

"There's somewhere where those cohos are not making it to the drainage," he told the board.

Others testified that sport fishing is a growing industry that needs to be protected because of its economic value to the Southcentral region.

"We have to respect tourism and treat it properly," said Joe Connors, a fishing guide who also sits on the Kenai Peninsula Tourism and Marketing Council.

Connors testified that the tourism industry would benefit if the board were to implement more mandated "windows," or periods when commercial nets cannot be in the water, in order to allow sport anglers a more consistent catch.

"Our goal is predictable availability and more opportunity to harvest salmon," he said.

As one might expect, not everyone who testified during the board's public comment period agreed with Connors.

Homer drift gillnetter Paul Mackey said he thinks declining fish stocks in Mat-Su streams is more likely due to overfishing by sport anglers and predation by northern pike than overharvest by commercial fishermen. He said the board should focus on those issues rather than cutting back on hours and areas where the fleet can fish.

"They should be required to clean up the mess they got themselves into," he said.

Commercial fishermen said they strongly oppose further cuts to their fishing time, and many testified that the board has already cut into their allocation and given it to sport and personal use fishermen.

"There's more fish taken each year," said David Wickers, who fishes a set gillnet on Kalifornsky Beach between the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.

Wickers said he believes the hugely popular personal use fisheries near the Kenai's two major salmon streams are unfairly managed, and give residents from elsewhere in Alaska chances to harvest fish before commercial fishermen are allowed to. He and his wife, JoAnn, said that personal use gillnet and dipnet fisheries shouldn't be allowed to open until minimum escapement goals are met on the rivers.

"All we ask for is a reasonable opportunity to fish," David Wickers said.

JoAnn Wickers told the board that she's tired of watching personal use fishermen harvest fish on the same beaches where her family's set nets sit high and dry while managers wait to meet escapement goals.

"It breaks your heart when you see these people having a party on the beach," she said.

A total of 28 proposals in front of the board deal with the personal use fisheries where each year thousands of Alaskans – many of whom make the three-hour drive from the Anchorage metro area or the Mat-Su to the Kenai – harvest their family's share of sockeye salmon. Some seek to reduce the number of fish a family can take, while others deal with opening the fisheries later in the year to allow more fish to pass sonar counters before fishing can begin. Still others would create new personal use fisheries in places closer to Anchorage like the Eklutna River.

Kenai River Sportfishing Association executive director Ricky Gease said he thinks the personal use fisheries are doing a good job of providing regular Alaskans access to the resource, and that the board should leave them alone. Gease said that because the fisheries take place on beaches instead of upstream, fishing pressure is reduced in sensitive habitat areas.

"They're harvesting their fish in probably the best place to harvest them," he said.

In all, the board will deliberate on 331 proposals on just about everything pertaining to fishing in Southcentral. Included on that list are major changes like altering Kenai River escapement goals, and relatively minor ones, like increasing the area open to king salmon fishing at the Eklutna Tailrace.

None of the proposals has to be voted up or down by the board. In fact, the board typically substitutes its own language when making final deliberations, which won't take place until Feb. 28. In the mean time, the board will split into committees that will deal with each proposal on an individual basis. Each committee will include three board members and several members of the public chosen based on their knowledge of the particular areas and fisheries.

When it's all said and done, Alaskans will have a new set of regulations that will tell them where they can fish, when they can fish and how many fish they can take.

At least for the next three years.

Contact Matt Tunseth at matt.tunseth@alaskastar.com or 694-2727 Ext. 215.



This article published in The Alaska Star on Wednesday, February 23, 2011.