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Scapegoating Webster is a setback for Cook Inlet

Posted: April 15, 2013 - 11:02pm

This editorial first appeared in the Alaska Journal of Commerce:

On April 8, a joint session of the Alaska Legislature confirmed 87 of 88 appointments put forth by Gov. Sean Parnell and rejected a third term for Board of Fisheries member Vince Webster by a single vote.

Not that relations between commercial and sport stakeholders in Cook Inlet weren’t frosty prior to the vote, but the campaign waged against Bristol Bay setnetter Webster by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association is yet another chill to any hope of thawing the perpetual conflict now exacerbated by low returns of Kenai River kings.

Never mind that the Board of Fisheries vote was 7-0 to adopt a new escapement goal range put forth by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game for Kenai kings based on new sonar counters, or that the same full board unanimously refused to adopt any new management measures at its statewide meeting in late March.

In the days leading up to the vote on Parnell’s nominations, KRSA put out action alerts urging its supporters to call legislators to oppose Webster, blaming him for the failure of the Upper Cook Inlet Task Force to reach consensus on new management measures and for the adoption of the escapement goal KRSA did not support.

Again, never mind that board member Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna co-chaired the task force along with Webster, or that Fairbanks sport guide Reed Morisky, who KRSA backed for the board earlier this year when Bill Brown of Juneau resigned before his term was up, also voted for the ADFG recommendation.

It really makes no sense to allege Webster — who as a commercial fishermen is in the minority on the board — is some kind of diabolical mastermind able to lead the other six members around by the nose all the while acting in bad faith and conspiring with some 16 or so ADFG scientists to come up with a questionable escapement goal.

KRSA directed no blame at any other members — Kluberton and Morisky were confirmed easily April 8 — or at board chairman Karl Johnstone, who is also strongly backed by the powerful sportfishing lobby group.

The thought here is that Parnell said it best in a statement: “It is disappointing, discouraging and disheartening when bad information or politics prevent a qualified Alaskan from serving our state”

It most certainly is, and the 30 legislators gullible or susceptible enough to fall for KRSA’s talking points about Webster should take a hard look at the composition of the Board of Fisheries they just created with just one member from Southeast — commercial fishermen John Jensen from Petersburg (no relation to this writer) — and nobody from Alaska’s best-known fishery in Bristol Bay.

The current composition of the board is now tremendously out of whack with four members bearing the KRSA stamp of approval and just two — Jensen and Sue Jeffery of Kodiak — with commercial fishing experience.

Despite all the clamor from legislators alleging an ADFG bias in favor of commercial fishing, Cook Inlet setnetters — who lost out on more than 90 percent of their typical harvest due to king salmon conservation closures in 2012 — have continually seen their fishing time and opportunity eroded by management decisions by the board to put additional kings as well as sockeyes into the rivers.

After the 2011 regular Cook Inlet board meeting, Johnstone said the allocative decisions pushed by KRSA made at that meeting, including the shift in harvest away from setnetters to the drift fleet and to in-river users, were worth, “millions of dollars” in some cases.

With that kind of money at stake, it is ridiculous to hold Webster accountable for the failure of a task force with no regulatory authority to broker a compromise between users with hardened positions, especially when the KRSA proposal was to restrict setnetters to just two, 12-hour fishing periods per week from July 1 to Aug. 10 when king salmon escapement is projected to be as high as 22,000 fish.

KRSA might as well hold Moses responsible for not working things out between the Egyptians and the Jews.

The East Side setnetters have fished the Inlet for a century, legally harvesting and selling king salmon all the while. That’s what made an amendment offered up by Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, to a House resolution such a poison pill and illustrative of the sort of misinformation that makes difficult fisheries decisions nearly impossible.

In his amendment to a resolution intended for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council requesting reductions in Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska king salmon bycatch, Stoltze singled out the Cook Inlet setnetters as having king salmon “bycatch” in their fishery.

To be clear: When a Cook Inlet setnetter catches a king, that is a legal harvest. When a pollock trawler catches a king, that is a prohibited species catch, a.k.a. bycatch.

Calling king salmon harvest by setnetters bycatch is not only technically wrong, it is, frankly, offensive to fishermen who’ve been setting their nets at the same sites for generations without a negative impact on Cook Inlet kings.

Parnell will have to make another appointment to the board to fill Webster’s seat, and based on standard practice he will have to nominate someone from the commercial sector.

At this point, finding a good candidate to fill the seat may be difficult when they could be subjected to the same sort of unfair and personal attacks leveled against Webster for the privilege of sitting on a board where they are in a minority to KRSA-backed members who are held to a different level of accountability.

Maybe that’s what the Kenai River Sportfishing Association is really after.

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