A significant shift in fisheries management aimed at putting more salmon in Cook Inlet streams and rivers surrounding Alaska’s urban core is coming, and commercial fishermen have been left dazed, panicky and angry.
Decisions to reduce the interception of Inlet sockeye salmon in commercial fisheries off the capes of Kodiak Island, to increase the in-river goals for Kenai River sockeye and Chinook, to create a conservation corridor in the Inlet to help pass coho (silver) and sockeye salmon through to streams in the Susitna River drainage, and to restrict gillnet gear to reduce the bycatch of Chinook – those big “kings” for which the state is famous – and more have frightened commercial interests.
Former Board of Fisheries member Robert Ruffner, who long carried the banner for commercial fishing interests on the Kenai Peninsula, suggested the changes are so extreme they add to the reasons to recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy. The state Supreme Court is now considering whether the recall Dunleavy should go on the ballot. Critics are angry about Dunleavy’s effort to trim the state budget.
A sportsman from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough on the northern edge of what the U.S. government defines as the Anchorage Metropolitan Area, Dunleavy named several supporters of sport and personal-use fishing to the seven-member, legislatively approved Fish Board.
“….The governor’s actions seemed extreme to me, but the tall one gets to pick members to serve on the board based on their knowledge in the field and good judgment (that aligns with his),” Ruffner wrote in the Kodiak Daily Mirror after the Board voted to limit sockeye salmon intercept fisheries which catch some of those fish off Kodiak capes.
Ruffner sought reappoint to the Board, but Dunleavy bypassed him.
“By all indications from my perspective,” Ruffner wrote, “the qualifying judgment for being on the Board and also the commissioner required that they go through a major campaign contributor well known in my neck of the woods for exercising undue influence.”
That unnamed contributor is Alaska businessman Bob Penney, a big Dunleavy supporter and the devil in the eyes of Kenai commercial fishermen. One of the founders of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KSRA), Penney owns a lodge-like log home along the river and has for decades battled to protect the river’s kings.
His love of the big fish – the Kenai produced the world record 97-pound, 4-ounce Chinook in May of 1985 – borders on the fanatical. He has long been convinced that the Kenai, which regularly produced kings over 80 pounds in the 1980s, could one day claim the honor of yielding the world’s first 100-pound, sport-caught Chinook.
The Board’s latest actions to try to put more big kings in the river led longtime commercial fishermen Paul Shadura II to accuse the Board of trying to destroy the Inlet’s eastside set net fishery.
“The processing industry will be severely hindered and forced into consolidating, processing remotely or closing as the result of your actions.
“Family businesses, small businesses that have been in existence for decades will no longer exist. Support industries will no longer be able to remain in business. Small communities on the Kenai Peninsula will be injured and the cumulative effects will affect the Kenai Peninsula Borough in a significantly negative manner.
“Board members should take caution in enacting so many critical changes in such a short time span and consider how previous Boards minimized regulatory changes so as not to seriously injure so many entities.”
There is agreement among all that previous Boards minimized regulatory changes. There is a lot of debate about Shadura’s other conclusions.
Alaska’s commercial salmon fisheries are in flux as they struggle to compete with the farmed salmon that now dominate global markets. A tiny fishery in the big Alaska picture, the Inlet has been especially hard hit by weak runs of sockeye – the money fish – often arriving later in the season than in past years.
A marketing outlook authored by the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby, says “the absence of the sockeye salmon over 6 pounds has taken Cook Inlet out of the premium market.”
The best of these fish, according to UCIDA said, are now “competing with the marketplace where 3- to 5-pound and 4- to 6-pound sockeye are plentiful,” which is costing fishermen and processors millions of dollars.
Meanwhile, more millions are being lost as the sockeye harvest shifts toward August when UCIDA says it “is no longer (is) graded #1. Now it’s mostly #2 and dog-food grades.”
Given these changes, plus a huge turnover in permits that has put many in the hands of commercial fishing hobbyists, some argue that Shadura’s fears arrived years ago, and that continued efforts to prop up the Inlet’s commercial fisheries have only hurt tourism, one of the state’s few growth industries.
When the Board last considered Inlet fisheries three years ago, Mat-Su businessmen trooped before the body in large numbers to make the tourism pitch. Those businesses depend on salmon reaching Susitna tributaries where they can be pursued by visiting anglers.
The Susitna, however, is last in line behind commercial fisheries that target salmon as they make their way up the 190-mile-long Inlet to the mouth of the Susitna.
The MatSu wanted a corridor to protect Susitna-bound salmon. Instead, they got the opposite after which then Board chairman John Jensen voiced the opinion that he was going to vote with a majority that had decided to “allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
What followed were three years of chaos in sport and personal-use fisheries.
A weak sockeye run in 2018 forced an early end to the popular, personal-use dipnet fishery on Kenia that usually helps tens of thousands of Alaskans fill their freezers in the name of food security, and sparked a reduction in the sport-fish bag limit for sockeye which have come to fuel a good chunk of the Kenai Peninsula tourism industry as Chinooks runs have faded.
Last year brought news that the sportfish tourism business in the region appeared to be in a significant decline due to the lack of fish in Mat-Su rivers. A report prepared by the respected, Florida-based consulting firm Southwick Associates for the Mat-Su Borough reported a 2017 sport fishery worth $100 million less than a decade before.
The report hit the news only two months after the Board of Fish rejected a KSRA proposal to eliminate the “priority” for the commercial salmon harvest in the Inlet in July, and only weeks after the state Legislature, heavily pressured by the state’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby, rejected the appointment to the Board of sport-fishing supporter Karl Johnstone, a retired judge and former Board chair.
With all of this history lurking in the background, the Mat-Su came to this year’s Board meeting better armed to make its case once more, and the now 87-year-old Penney showed up in person to help push KSRA’s arguments despite the fact that his dream of a 100-pound Kenai king is now a fading memory.
Politics + fish = fishtics
For decades, kings have been declining in number and shrinking in size all across the North Pacific.
Independent, Seattle-based scientists Greg Ruggerone and a team of government scientists from Canada, Alaska and the Pacific Northwest have suggested the problem is that the big kings simply can’t compete with the hundreds of millions of smaller, hatchery- and management-boosted pink salmon that now swarm to sea each year.
The pinks are a short-lived, fast-growing species. The kings are a long-lived, slow-growing species.
The competition theory has not been proven, and Alaska’s top commercial fisheries biologist has largely dismissed it as a correlation with no substantive link to causation – the scientific way of saying that although the bird has feathers, swims on the water and makes noises that could be interpreted as quacks, it isn’t necessarily a duck.
Some commercial interests are deeply invested in hatcheries, and they are helping fund the state’s hatchery research, which has focused on the interbreeding of wild fish with hatchery strays and ignored possible inter-species food competition between wild and hatchery fish.
Commercial fishermen have long had significant influence over the Fish and Game Department and the independent Board the Alaska Legislature established to try to take the politics out of salmon allocation battles historically involving commercial gear groups – purse seiners, drift gillnetters, trollers, set gillnetters. The fish wars later morphed into battles between commercial and non-commercial fishermen as the state grew.
Surrounded by most of the state’s population, Cook Inlet inevitably became the flashpoint for these struggles. Under former Gov. Tony Knowles, a Democrat and another politician supported by Penney, non-commercial interests made some inroads into the Inlet fisheries long controlled by commercial interests.
They largely managed to hang onto those limited gains through the brief term of Gov. Sarah Palin, who resigned office to pursue life as a national polebrity after a failed vice-presidential run, and Gov. Sean Parnell.
But under former Gov. Bill Walker, a Republican turned independent on a ticket with a longtime Democrat, the commercial interests began chipping away at the non-commercial gains. Walker was buddies with the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), which claimed credit for helping him secure a 6,000-vote victory over Parnell in the 2014 election.
After the election, Walker promptly appointed newly resigned UCIDA executive director Roland Maw to the Board and later helped cover up the reason for Maw’s sudden resignation from that body. Walker asked Maw to resign after it was discovered he was a resident of Montana.
The power of the state’s commercial fishermen was well illustrated when the Anchorage Daily News, the state’s largest newspaper, chose to join in covering up that connection. But the story got out anyway after it became known the state of Montana was investigating Maw for also claiming to be an Alaska resident.
The claims allowed Maw to obtain resident benefits in both states. That is illegal. Montana convicted Maw of illegally using a residency claim to acquire big-game hunting licenses. Alaska is still pursuing him on felony charges of claiming Permanent Fund Dividends available only to residents.
Despite the charges Maw has faced since not long after his resignation from the Board, he has remained active with UCIDA and was regularly in attendance when it met with Walker to try to formulate an Inlet strategy to maintain a hold on 70 to 80 percent of the salmon for commercial use. Maw has been a regular at the latest Fish Board meeting and testified on UCIDA’s behalf.
Noticeably absent from the proceedings has been Johnstone, once a powerbroker in fisheries circles as the Board chair. Noting his disagreement with Walker’s views on Inlet salmon, he resigned to pave the way for Maw’s appointment.
Maw eventually gave way to Ruffner, who many politically active anglers and personal-use dipnetters viewed as Maw-lite. A fellow resident of the Kenai Peninsula, Ruffner lacked Maw’s direct connection to UCIDA but was keenly tuned to protecting the interests of Kenai commercial fishermen.
When Ruffner’s term expired, Dunleavy said good-bye and named Johnstone to fill one of the seats then opening on the Board. A political firestorm erupted almost immediately. The United Fishermen of Alaska, a commercial fishing group that is one of the states’ biggest political powers, launched on all-out-effort to block Johnstone’s confirmation in the Legislature.
At his first confirmation hearing, Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anch., questioned whether Johnstone had been enough of an “advocate” for commercial fishing during his previous stint on the Board, observing that there needed to be more focus on “all of those things (that) also have an influence with what is going on in the commercial industry…ocean acidification, global warming….”
Neither of those “things” has, to date, had any effect on Alaska salmon fisheries. They are producing record numbers of fish, but the unprecedented returns have not eased the battles over who gets to catch them.
Meanwhile, Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, was blunt in her attack on Johnstone, accusing him of being a closet supporter of farmed fish (a hated competitor in the 49th state) and a man “proven…to be extremely biased against commercial fisheries.”
When it appeared that these protests weren’t going to be enough to upend Johnstone’s confirmation, Rep. Ivy Sponholz, D-Anch., dropped a bomb – a vague #metoo accusation Sponholz has refused to talk about every since.
With a vote on Johnstone pending, she announced that “in the last 24-hours, more than two women have reached out to my office, people who worked for the Board of Fish when Johnstone was previously on the Board of Fish to share concerns about his behavior. They each described inappropriate sexual comments, which created a hostile work environment for them repeatedly.”
Exactly how many women? Sponholz refused to say.
“Inappropriate sexual comments?” Sponholz refused to provide even a hint as to their nature.
“A hostile work environment?” Only a handful of Alaska Department Fish and Game employees worked around Johnstone on a regular basis. Craigmedred.news contacted all of them. One who is involved in Anchorage Democrat politics (Dunleavy is a Republican, and the state’s partisan divide is an ocean in the era of Trump) didn’t want to talk, the others said they’d never had a problem with Johnstone.
None of those women, or any other women, have emerged since Johnstone’s rejection by the Legislature to suggest a problem with Johnstone, unusual in and of itself in the #metoo era. The accusations against Harvey Weinstein, Roger Ailes, Charlie Rose and others far more powerful than Johnstone opened floodgates.
Ironically, commercial fishing interests who opposed Johnstone, a moderate, now appear to have been the biggest loser, especially in Stutes’s district. Johnstone has told friends he would have voted against the Kodiak fishing restriction, believing there isn’t enough data in hand to prove the cape fisheries are a major player in the fading sockeye returns to the Inlet.