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 Association.
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 statements.
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."