THIS STORY WAS UPDATED AT MIDNIGHT, MAY 17, 2017
In an unprecedented move, the Alaska Board of Fisheries has decided that subsistence fishermen can be forced to share the burden of conservation if necessary to keep a commercial fishery operating.
The decision appears to challenge the Katie John court ruling which held that subsistence users have a federal priority to salmon.
Previous Fish Boards have treated the priority as a requirement to close commercial fisheries before restricting subsistence.
The Board took a different tack on Wednesday when faced with a petition from the Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee asking for a review of emergency restrictions on the harvest of Cooper River king salmon.
The decided two kings per permit was enough for subsistence, and subsisence fishermen would just need to make do with more plentiful sockeye because of a king shortage.
A disastrously weak run of kings is expected to return to the Eastern Alaska river this year.
Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten, a commercial fisherman before his appointment by Gov. Bill Walker, allocated most of the anticipated allowable harvest of only 5,000 kings to a Cordova-based commercial fishery.
He closed all king salmon sport fisheries in the Copper River drainage, banned Chitina, personal-use dipnetters from harvesting kings, and limited the subsistence fishermen to two kings for the year, an annual limit lower than that for anglers in Cook Inlet.
Allocation decisions are technically the responsibility of the Board, but it has delegated broad authority to the commissioner to act in emergency situations as appears to be the case on the Copper. Last year, state fisheries managers miscalculated the size of the run, allowed it to be overfished in the commercial fishery, and ended up with a Copper River drainage short about half the number of king spawners thought necessary to maintain future runs.
Worried that could happen again based on a projected return of only 29,000 of the big, prized fish, fishery managers this time moved early to cut off sport and personal use kills before seasons opened, restrict the subsistence fishermen, and push the commercial fleet into areas where it catches fewer kings and more of the plentiful Copper River sockeyes.
Noting the unprecedented subsistence restrictions and the devastation done to tourism-related, sport-fishing businesses near Glennallen in an economically struggling section of rural, Eastern Alaska, the Fairbanks group petitioned Cotten for a Board review of his decision.
Cotten denied the petition, arguing there was no emergency.
His action led Board members Israel Payton and Reed Morisky to ask for a Board vote on the emergency. By law, however, when the Board is forced to take such action it can only do so if it believes the resource is threatened.
Sue Jeffery, a commercial fisherman from Kodiak, was quick to point that out, arguing that while the closures of sport and personal use fisheries, and the subsistence restrictions might be “burdensome” to those fishermen, “it was not unforeseen or unexpected.”
King salmon returns are down in many Alaska streams. Poor-ocean survival of young fish is thought to be the cause. For unknown reasons, more of them are dying before they get a chance to grow into 20- to 80-pound spawners.
The king salmon shortage has led fishing restrictions throughout Central and Eastern Alaska.
“Everyone in this region is feeling the burdens of conservation,” Jeffery said, although the ultimate burden has been placed on only two fisheries – the Copper River king salmon sport fishery and the Chitina personal-use fishery.
“The equity is not there,” Morisky said.
Board member Orville Huntington from Huslia in the Interior countered that it didn’t matter if the allocation was fair because all the board had authority to decide was whether there was an emergency threatening Copper River kings. He said he couldn’t see one.
Huntington then joined with other Board members to vote the Fairbanks petition down 4 to 3. He was joined in the vote by Jeffery; board chairman John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg; and Robert Ruffner from Soldotna. Ruffner is the former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum whose appointment to the Board was pushed by Kenai commercial fishermen.
Earlier this year, he led Board efforts to expand commercial fishing in Cook Inlet to the possible detriment of sport fisheries in the Matanuska-Susitna Valley and the personal-use dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai River.
Jensen summarized those efforts by saying that Board action would “allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
Morisky and Payton were joined in the minority by Alan Cain, a retired Alaska State Trooper and for 15 years before retirement the consultant to the Board on law enforcement.