Casting about for answers — Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association to host town hall-style meeting with Fish and Game commissioner
By Jenny Neyman
The nets are back in storage, the boats are hauled ashore for winter and the sockeye salmon have pushed into the Kenai and Kasilof rivers to spawn. The 2012 Cook Inlet commercial sockeye fishing season is finished, yet east-side commercial sockeye set-net fishermen, and others affected by restrictions and closures of the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries this summer, still have active questions regarding management of the fisheries, as well as what assistance might come from a federal disaster declaration of Alaska fisheries issued Sept. 13.
The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association is hosting a meeting Friday in hope of getting answers to those questions.
“This is for the community as a whole so anybody that has questions about economic relief or has questions about how the season went, or the future, and wants a chance to talk to the commissioner (of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game), this is what we’re offering,” said Paul Shadura, board director of the KPFA.
King salmon returns were low throughout several areas of the state this year, including to Cook Inlet. Fish and Game took a conservative approach to managing the area’s fisheries in order to preserve kings to help meet escapement goals in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers. Managers first enacted restrictions on in-river sport king fishing, then an all-out closure of in-river king fishing July 19. That triggered a caveat in the area’s king salmon management plan for a simultaneous closure of east-side commercial sockeye set-net fishing, to prevent the accidental mortality of kings that sometimes get caught in the set nets targeting sockeye salmon.
Though Fish and Game subsequently announced that the king run was late but not as drastically low as Fish and Game had thought it would be, that crumb of good news was too little, too late in the season for commercial set-net fishermen to salvage the fish and revenue they missed while their nets sat high and dry on the beach for all but a few openings in July.
The abysmal season left set-netters without revenue to pay their deckhands, fuel bills, site leases and other costs involved in commercial fishing, but with plenty of questions for Fish and Game, regarding the reliability of the department’s sonar king counting program, the wisdom of protecting kings to the point of allowing overescapement of sockeye by restricting commercial fishing, and many more.
“The department doesn’t seem to be willing to offer solutions and the commissioner is not willing to stand out on their own position and offer relief in-season using their authority, so then it comes into the political arena of the Board of Fish. The Board of Fish has its duties to allocate and set policies, and they’re supposed to be also concerned about conservation, which I’m sure they are, and development, which doesn’t seem to be a key consideration. I’m worried that it will be back in the political nature of the Board of Fish and less in the science-based accountability that’s required for good, sound fisheries management,” Shadura said.
Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell visited the central peninsula in mid-July, shortly after the in-river king and east-side sockeye set-net fishery closures, and a restricted amount of representatives of local fishing groups were able to meet with her. But KPFA wants all its membership, and anyone else in the community affected by the fisheries, to have the opportunity to speak, be heard, ask questions and hear responses.
“We asked at that time that she address the fishery as a whole. Now this is the public meeting that should have been done in July,” Shadura said.
He expects the commissioner and Fish and Game representatives in attendance to give a presentation, then stand for moderated questions from attendees, similar to a town hall-style of meeting held recently in Willow for Matanuska- and Susitna-area fishermen. Shadura attended that meeting and was not impressed with the answers Fish and Game representatives provided. He hopes they will provide more direct, definitive information at this meeting.
“I asked them, ‘Given the same situation, is this what we’re going to have happen next year?’ They gave what I thought was a very unacceptable answer of, ‘Well, every year is different.’ And we didn’t think that was a complete-enough answer. We’re understanding that we’re dealing with a natural resource that can fluctuate — that’s expected. But we believe that the department and the state should be able to predict the process much better than they have been and give us fair warning, not only the businesses that rely on it directly, but indirectly, and then there’s the general user,” Shadura said.
The meeting will be held at Peninsula Grace Brethren Church gym on Kalifornsky Beach Road. The Fish and Game discussion will be held from 1 to 3 p.m. Questions will be moderated.
“We don’t want it to be a free-for-all. We want good, hard questions asked. We want people to be civil, but we want the agencies to give us some real answers and not be evasive. This is not a time to mess around anymore. We really want to see it happen, to have something to look forward to, to know where we’re going to be,” Shadura said.
From 10 a.m. to noon, KPFA is hoping to host a discussion on the federal disaster declaration and the economic relief that might come from it. But as of Monday, Shadura said he hadn’t gotten a response to his inquiries for information, nor had he received conformation of attendance from anyone with the state who could speak to the declaration.
“I’m not getting anything direct. As far as the KPFA organization goes, to my knowledge, we haven’t received any communications from anybody,” Shadura said. “We’re having to conduct these meetings, or ask to have these meetings happen, and it’s kind of odd that nobody talks to the affected party directly.”
Gov. Sean Parnell requested disaster declarations in July over poor king runs in the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers, and another Aug. 16 over the poor king runs to Cook Inlet and the subsequent impact on the commercial sockeye fishery. The Cook Inlet request notes that commercial set-net fishermen lost nearly 90 percent of their normal annual income from the restrictions and closure, an estimated loss of $2 million to $3.7 million. And that doesn’t even include the lost revenue suffered by king salmon sportfishing guides, lodge owners, RV parks, restaurants and other businesses.
A document titled “2012 Alaska Chinook Salmon Fishery Disaster Frequently Asked Questions,” posted on the department’s website Sept. 14, says that the king fishery on the Yukon generated an average annual harvest value of $1.5 million over the 10 years preceding the fishery shutdown in 2012.
On the Kuskokwim, chum and sockeye salmon harvests were restricted and the overall value generated by the commercial salmon fishery fell to less than 50 percent of the average seen in the preceding five years, according to the document. It also notes that subsistence fisheries on the Yukon and the Kuskokwim rivers also were restricted to the point where there may not have been enough kings available for subsistence harvest.
On Thursday, Rebecca Blank, the acting secretary of the U.S. Department of Commerce, announced the declaration had been granted for Yukon River in 2010, 2011 and 2012, the Kuskokwim River in 2011 and 2012, and Cook Inlet in 2012.
The declaration alone, however, doesn’t guarantee any assistance. Now it’s up to Congress to appropriate disaster relief funding, at which point, “the (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration) will work with the state of Alaska, the Alaska Federation of Natives and the affected communities to develop an appropriate economic spending plan that would support additional science to understand the underlying causes of this disaster, prevent a similar failure in the future, and assist the affected fishing communities,” according to Blank.
“I liken it to putting a key in the lock and opening the door, so to speak. What we understand is the economic disaster is declared using (the National Marine Fishery Service’s) criteria and that many times there isn’t funding for these. This is a first step, so we’re looking at talking to our federal delegation to see what the next steps are and how long it will take,” Shadura said.
“Nothing here says this is a done deal, and none of the things that I’ve seen here are too inspiring at this point,” he said.
Part of that lack of optimism comes from looking at the larger picture of current federal finances.
“We understand that money is very tight and they’re dealing with some very serious issues, as we all know right now, with their budget. So asking of more money at the same time they’re trying to trim the budget may be a strong contradiction,” Shadura said.
On top of that, Alaska is in the same boat with several other states. Also on Sept. 13, Blank announced fishery disaster declarations for several Northeast states over several key fish stocks in a groundfish fishery that are not rebuilding despite catch limits, and for Mississippi in suffering the decimation of its oyster and blue crab fisheries from flooding of the lower Mississippi River in 2011.
Even beyond that is the matter of state support. At most, Blank’s letter explains, the federal share of economic support resulting from the disaster declaration would be no more than 75 percent of the amount approved.
“So my assumption is the 25 percent has got to come from somewhere. I guess in our case we’d be looking for the state of Alaska to come up with that, and that’s the hurdle that we need to do. The state needs to step up and say, ‘OK,’ and hopefully on Friday we’ll get to ask those questions,” he said.
“I think the governor needs to step up and say, ‘Hey, this is how I see the fisheries are a part of our state, they’ve been here a long time, we’d like to see them into the future, it has to fit into the program, make it work and set a policy based on that. We don’t hear that from the governor’s office. All we hear is this disaster relief that he asked for somebody else to supply, when many times that’s a contradiction because they (state officials) challenge the federal government for all their oversight into different projects in the state, but at the same time he’s turning around and saying, ‘We need your help.’ It’s just kind of an odd situation,” Shadura said.
The meeting is planned to go ahead Friday, regardless of whether any state representatives attend to discuss the potential economical impacts of the disaster declaration. Shadura said the meeting is open to everyone.
“We’re only the hosts. It’s not just commercial fishermen. We expect businesspeople that are affected by this — guides and charter operations within the rivers, lodge and bed and breakfast owners — and just interested people that their lives were changed from the restriction, who are considering what’s going to happen in the future and if there’s a way to have some kind of economic relief for their businesses or the community as a whole. We want everybody to show up. It’s not just our problem, it’s the community’s problem,” Shadura said.
For more information, visit www.adfg.alaska.gov/index.cfm?adfg=hottopics.federalchinookdisaster