The State Supreme Court ruled last week an initiative to ban commercial set netting was unconstitutional. The ban was proposed to address claims of wildlife overkill by set netters. Ban supporters relied mostly on eyewitness accounts to back up their claims. KBBI’s Quinton Chandler has more.
Kenai Peninsula fishermen have kept a close eye on the set net ban initiative since it was first proposed in 2013. The proposed ban would have affected urban areas across the state, but Pat Shields, a biologist for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Commercial Fisheries Division for the Upper Cook Inlet, says the ban was really targeting the eastside set net fishery in Cook Inlet.
“Typically each year about 450 set netters on the eastside register to conduct their activities here,” said Shields.
That’s 450 set netting operations that would have had to shut down if the ban were eventually approved by voters.
Joe Connors is with the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, the group that sponsored the ban. Connors says the ban was an extreme measure the nonprofit took because no one listened to their warnings that some set netters hurt fish stocks.
“They fish intensely. They try to kill as many fish as quick as they can and that’s the problem,” said Connors. “I have incredible amounts of video and pictorial footage of waste. But, no there’s no data. I’m not going to commission a study that the state doesn’t require.”
Connors believes commercial set-netters also play a roll, harming king salmon and other species of fish and wildlife. He says he has photos showing fish drying up in nets and being eaten by sea gulls. He adds set netters often take in bycatch like flounders, salmon shark and Dolly Varden. There’s no record because there’s no requirement to report them.
Shields says flounders and salmon sharks make up most set net bycatch, but he adds they can usually escape the nets.
In 2012 the king salmon return to the Kenai River was miserable. Connors says all fishermen contributed to the huge decline in 2012. But he blames an oversaturation of set nets for slowing the fishery’s recovery.
Shield’s division is worried about the king population but he wouldn’t say set netters are the problem.
“I can speak to that question this way. We have never failed to make the minimum escapement goal for the minimum escapement goal for late run king salmon in the Kenai River since we started measuring escapement in the early 1980’s,” said Shields.
The escapement goal is the number of kings the department wants to return to the Kenai River to spawn. Shields says it’s hard to say there is a conservation issue when that goal is continually met.
“That said we have had to take a number of restrictive actions, including closures, for both sport and commercial fisheries in most recent years during this downturn of king salmon abundance and that’s occurring all over the state,” said Shields.
Andy Hall, a set net fisherman and the President of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, says conservation wasn’t the motivation behind the ban. He says it was just an attempt to free up more fish for sport fishermen.
That is false, says Connors with the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance.
“Why do you need more? If we’re true to our cause then we’d like to see those fish get to spawn. We’d like to see the big 70, 80 [and] 90 pounders back. That’s just all made up,” said Connors.
Connors doesn’t know what the Alliance’s next step is. They are trying to setup a meeting among the nonprofit’s board members.