The Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly adopted a resolution supporting a continuation of setnetting in Cook Inlet at its meeting Tuesday. Debate on the issue came only from supporters.
The resolution was initially a part of the consent agenda for the evening. But given the crowd in the Chambers, about 30 setnetters, it wasn’t too surprising to see it pulled for a little more discussion. Which eventually ended with a unanimous vote in support.
By passing the resolution, the Assembly also voiced its disapproval of a possible ballot initiative to get commercial setnetting banned statewide. Many of the people who testified Tuesday evening saw that as the real issue. Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association president Rob Williams told the Assembly the proposed voter initiative sets a bad precedent.
“It’s ballot box biology, and that’s probably the scariest thing of all.”
That testimony struck a chord with Assembly member Wayne Ogle.
“Throw it out for the voters who are ill-informed as to the situation and what it’s all about and let them decide. Meanwhile, you go out and demagogue and make sure that the information you want to get across is broadcast to the right people.”
Ogle was referring to recent efforts by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance to put a setnet ban on the ballot in 2016.
“I worry about the fact that one group is trying to shut down another group. I don’t like that. I think it’s kind of an un-American way to go about dealing with the situation,” Ogle said.
While that sportfishing group is aligned squarely against the set net fleet, the commercial fishing community as a whole is coming together around this issue. Roland Maw is the executive director of UCIDA, the group that represents drift netters in Cook Inlet.
“We’re solidly with out set net friends and neighbors and with out industry. We need each other, and that’s the way this thing is going to work.”
Maw said he thought this was just the opening round in what could be a long fight between the two sides over access to dwindling king salmon stocks.
The initiative still has legal hurdles to clear before it can go to voters. But the comm fisherman are just as worried about what could happen through the legislative process between now and then.
State Senator Peter Micciche, who is also a drifter, challenged the sport fishing community to stand with, rather than in opposition to, the broader fishing industry on the Peninsula.
“No one was supposed to win the allocation war. It’s sort of a fun struggle that’s gone on forever. Our community has managed to work it out for all these years. The only thing less effective than attempting to manage fish politically in Juneau is to manage fish through the ballot box,” Micciche said.
Assembly member Brent Johnson, a long time setnetter from Coho, co-sponsored the resolution with Dale Bagley. Johnson says the goal of eliminating setnetting at the mouth of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers would put huge burdens on salmon streams in rural areas.
“Either way this initiative would happen to the communities of Nanwalek, Port Graham and Tyonek, either they would be allowed to continue and have a jillion people setnetting there. If they weren’t allowed to continue, they would have lost a means of livelihood in community where means of livelihood are very few and hard to find,” Johnson said.
The Assembly also adopted another resolution sponsored by Johnson. That one asks the state department of fish and game to continue enumeration estimates for sockeye smolt on the Kasilof river. Those kinds of studies have been going on since 1980, but may end due to budget concerns in the department.