This debate has been going on for decades. Recently, dramatically low returns of king salmon to Cook Inlet have driven a huge wedge between sport fishermen and their commercial counterparts, in particular, the East Side Set Net fleet that operates along about 70 miles of coast, from Nikiski to Ninilchik.
“That it’s even out there is the disturbing part. It’s un-Alaskan, it’s greedy. It’s the same people that have been doing this for years," says Andy Hall, President of the Board of Directors for the Kenai Peninsula Fisherman’s Association.
That group represents many of the setnetters who could be forced out of the water if the initiative is approved by voters in a couple years. The group doing the forcing is the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance. It’s made up of sport fishing interests, many of whom have been battling the commercial fleets over access to salmon stocks for years.
“We don’t have a fight with commercial fishing. We have a fight with a particular type of fishing in urban areas of Alaska. It’s past its time," says Joe Connors, president of the AFCA board.
The next step is drafting the language of the initiative and getting the signatures. Connors says they’ll have to find about 35,000 registered voters to sign on. The Alliance has already laid out the basic tenants of what it wants on a ballot measure; to ban commercial setnetting in urban areas of the state. In this case, urban areas are defined as Fairbanks, Juneau, Valdez, Ketchikan and the areas surrounding Anchorage, the Mat-Su Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough. So while it will technically apply statewide, in function, it applies most to fishermen on the Kenai.
“To say that cutting out 700-plus family fishing businesses and a fishery that’s been around for 130 years because somebody wants everything and can’t share, it just is kind of sad, actually," says Hall.
Hall says he’s hopeful the state will appeal the decision to the Supreme Court. And because salmon is a natural resource, like oil, gas or minerals, it’s a bad idea to have voters determine its management at the ballot.
“It’s a small and well-financed, selfish little group of people who can’t see beyond their own wants, so I think when the rest of the state gets wind of it, it’s not going to go anywhere," says Hall.
But Connors says the state has always invited the public into fishing decisions, dating to before statehood.
“I would expect that a lot of people just don’t even have an opinion and they don’t know much about the fishery. It’s going to be up to us to educate the public. It’s a fishery that needs to go away because it kills everything," says Connors.
The day after the decision was handed down by Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter, the Department of Fish and Game issued an emergency order closing almost all set net fishing on Cook Inlet’s east side until further notice, in order to preserve the tiny run of kings still coming into the Kenai River.
Hall says this year has been an improvement over the past couple, but he and others are still struggling to break even. Meanwhile, sport guides, whose numbers have shrunk right in line with the king salmon decline, are still prohibited from targeting the few kings that are making it back.
If the initiative process goes forward as planned, voters will make the final decision during the August 2016 primaries.