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Alaska salmon management: A unique process for a unique state

Posted: December 1, 2013 - 1:06am
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Editor’s note: This is the fifth in the Morris Communications series “The case for conserving the Kenai king salmon.”

For a young state, Alaska has a long history with fisheries management.

Alaska’s desire to manage fisheries, and salmon in particular, was a driving force during the push for statehood, and more than a century before that, the commercial fishing industry was a major component of the United States purchase of Alaska from Russia in 1857.

For thousands of years, Alaskans have traveled to the ocean and rivers to catch fish, but by the middle of the 20th century, salmon runs were being decimated by Outsiders using fish traps and residents of the territory were determined to retake control as a state.

So when the state Legislature first convened in 1959, creating a plan for fisheries management was one of its early tasks. It came up with a multi-faceted process— the Department of Fish and Game, Board of Fisheries and regional Advisory Committees — that still governs state fisheries today.

The Department of Fish and Game has its roots in the Alaska Fishery Service, which was created in 1949 to try and influence federal management and conduct research. That was renamed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in 1957. In 1959, the Alaska Legislature made it a state agency.

That same year, the Legislature developed the Board of Fisheries and Game process that oversees wildlife management policy today.

Alaska’s Board of Fisheries began as an eight-member body that managed both fish and game; in 1975, it was split into separate boards, each with seven members.

Former board chair Nick Szabo served when the two bodies were separated, from 1974 to 1982. Szabo said the board has the most open process in the state in terms of public involvement in setting regulations. No other state agency has a process as democratic and widely-publicized as the Board of Fisheries, he said.

“It’s probably one of the most democratic processes on the face of the earth,” Szabo said.

The Board of Fisheries is tasked with setting fisheries policy for the state. It makes decisions about allocations, drafts management plans and confirms the escapement goals proposed by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, or ADFG.

An escapement goal is the number of salmon needed to reach the spawning ground to ensure sustainable returns in the future with any surplus available for harvest by commercial, sport and subsistence users. While ADFG sets the sustainable escapement goal, or SEG, the board may set optimum escapement goals, or OEG.

An OEG may not be lower than the sustainable escapement goal, but the board may choose a higher range for reasons such as passing more fish to in-river users.

Board members are citizens, appointed by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature. In essence the board has been a sort of buffer between the public and ADFG, Szabo said.

Advisory committees, interest groups, and regular citizens can submit management proposals that the board must consider. The public also has opportunity to provide public testimony, both written and oral, on the proposals.

ADFG also submits proposals, and provides technical and biological information to the board. Once a proposal carries, it is adopted right away and in place when the fishery begins.

When Szabo served, the board met in Anchorage. Once a year, usually in December, it took up finfish proposals, and then in the spring, it talked about shellfish.

“We would have, like, month-long meetings at the Hilton hotel to deal with the whole state,” Szabo said.

Now, the board discusses every fishery on a three-year cycle. Many of the meetings are held in Anchorage, but the board also travels to other communities every year to discuss fisheries in the region.

State leads on in-river management

Fisheries management jurisdiction in Alaska is complex.

On a day-to-day basis, ADFG is responsible for most salmon management.

Generally, the State of Alaska is in charge of management in navigable rivers, and within three miles of shore. The federal government regulates fisheries in the exclusive economic zone from three to 200 miles offshore from Alaska, as well as some in-river fisheries on federal land.

The federal government also delegated most salmon management authority outside three miles to the state through the federal fisheries management plan, or FMP.

The FMP for the western portion of the state prohibits salmon fishing in most parts of the ocean, and excludes certain areas, like Prince William Sound and Cook Inlet, leaving the state to manage those areas, said ADFG’s Karla Bush, who works in the extended jurisdiction section.

Removing Cook Inlet from the FMP was not uncontroversial. In early 2013, the Cook Inlet Fishermen’s Fund and the United Cook Inlet Drift Association sued the federal managers, asserting that the federal government should have retained its ability to oversee state management.

Under the FMP for the eastern area, state and federal managers work jointly to regulate a troll fishery in Southeast Alaska under the Pacific Salmon Treaty with Canada.

The federal North Pacific Fishery Management Council, an 11-member body made up of members from Alaska, Washington and Oregon, is also responsible for managing bycatch of salmon in federal fisheries such as pollock.

The council, which has a majority of six voting members from Alaska including the commissioner of Fish and Game, sets caps on the amount of salmon that can be caught, but, unlike the quick implementation of Board of Fisheries decisions, doing so can be a lengthy process.

It took decades for the council to see a problem with the level of bycatch in the Bering Sea, and, after more than 120,000 kings were taken by the pollock fleet in 2007, another four years to get a regulation capping it implemented in 2011.

The state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission also plays a role in management by limiting the number of participants in certain fisheries.

Although Alaska’s constitution maintains that natural resources, including fisheries, are to be used for the benefit of all, the public voted to allow restricted entry in state fisheries in 1972 for conservation, preventing economic distress or promoting aquaculture. Limited entry is subject to certain restrictions to ensure that Alaskans as a whole still maintain the benefit of the resource, and permits that allow individuals to participate in certain fisheries have limitations of their own.

Fishermen in both the drift and setnet fleets in Cook Inlet must have permits in order to participate, although not everyone with a permit chooses to fish.

Guides on the Kenai River, who receive compensation for helping clients from around Alaska and Outside catch fish, also must have a permit, although those are granted by Alaska State Parks, which is part of the Department of Natural Resources, and are not limited in number.

The state’s desire to manage its own salmon partially stems from statehood and the ongoing state-federal tug-of-war over resource management, but it’s also rooted in a desire for flexible management, both in implementing regulations and changing things based on the most up-to-date information.

“The state manages based on in-season information,” said Bush of ADFG.

ADFG’s commercial and sport divisions are responsible for day-to-day management. They can issue an emergency order, or EO, and act immediately to close or open fishing.

During the summer of 2013, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game issued more than 50 announcements about who could fish where, and with what gear, in Upper Cook Inlet to meet escapement goals under the management plans.

There was a steady stream of EOs this past summer as managers tried to meet competing goals of harvesting Kenai and Kasilof river sockeyes while meeting escapement goals for other species, most notably the Kenai River late-run of king salmon.

Some of first announcements, issued in April and May, announced closures and limitations to protect Kenai River early-run kings.

Eventually, commercial openings set in regulation were announced, to harvest sockeyes during July, the same time late-run kings return to the Kenai. Throughout the summer, all users — sport, commercial and personal use — were restricted in some way to protect king salmon, whether their gear was limited, fishing time reduced, retention prohibited, or some combination thereof.

Throughout the summer, ADFG assessed salmon runs and harvests via several methods to gauge how many fish were returning, and used the information to try and meet escapement goals.

For each salmon run, managers tried to get an ideal number to return and reproduce. The hope is that if the optimum number of fish return to their natal stream to spawn, future runs will be maximized.

Upriver, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is also responsible for management in certain areas as a result of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.

Under that law, subsistence activity takes priority on federal lands, and the feds have jurisdiction over certain lands, including the Kenai National Wildlife Refuge.

As a result, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife service must oversee management on certain parts of the Kenai River. Subsistence fisheries were implemented in certain areas in 2006, after the regional advisory council decided to do so.

Use is limited primarily to residents of Hope, Cooper Landing, and Ninilchik, based on a rural designation and their customary and traditional use of the resource.

Jerry Berg, from Fish and Wildlife Service, said the federal managers try to follow the state, and cooperate with them as much as possible. In 2013, when king fishing closed in the state fishery, Fish and Wildlife followed suit with a closure in the subsistence fishery.

That move, however, was largely precautionary. The subsistence fishery focuses on sockeye, and users don’t generally net kings.

“There hasn’t been any harvest of chinook salmon,” he said, since the fishery began in 2006.

Washington salmon management

Alaska’s management regime was, in part, a response to what it saw in the rest of the world: declining fisheries, and management that many Alaskans didn’t think was helping.

Washington, Alaska’s closest neighbor, has a different style of management than Alaska but shares many of the same conflicts among users.

Bill Tweit, from Washington’s Department of Fish and Wildlife, said that in his state, like Alaska, commercial and recreational users are divided.

The lower Columbia River, which is the boundary between Oregon and Washington in the western portion of those states, is popular for both commercial and recreational fishermen — and there aren’t enough kings for both groups to catch them as many as they’d like.

As a result, there are disagreements between the two groups.

“They’re both fighting for real fish and real opportunity,” Tweit said, comparing the issues that arise to the Cook Inlet fish wars.

Most recently, the recreational users have won the allocative battle, successfully arguing for a larger stake by reducing the allowable use of gillnets.

But Tweit, who is also a member of the North Pacific council, said the conflict has a long history, and both sides have strong foundations.

In Washington, the state shares management responsibility with tribal governments. The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council, a counterpart to the North Pacific council governing Alaska waters, also plays a role in overseeing ocean fishing for salmon. The state also shares management responsibility on part of the Columbia River with the State of Oregon.

Managers use weak stock management to figure out what portion of each king salmon stock can be harvested without doing harm to the stock, said Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife’s Salmon Policy Coordinator Pat Pattillo.

State and tribal governments divvy up the harvestable amounts of each king salmon between themselves in a yearly process, and figure out what is available for ocean users. That information is taken to the Pacific council each spring.

Tweit said weak stock management has generally worked in favor of the resource, and has reduced ocean fisheries somewhat. Washington has several king populations with Endangered Species Act listings, and it’s been a way to reduce overfishing, he said.

“The system is very responsive to conservation,” Tweit said. “It’s not the fish that suffer.”

In addition to weak stock management, there’s focus on selective harvest, ensuring that hatchery fish are caught and wild runs spawn, where possible, Pattillo said.

For the king salmon stocks that the state manages, the Fish and Wildlife Commission is responsible for allocative and policy-type decisions, while the Department of Fish and Wildlife takes care of day-to-day management.

But the commission does not operate as the Alaska board does. Although public input is considered, proposals are generated by the state departments, not by the general public. And every fishery is discussed each year.

The underlying goal, however, is the same. By regulation, the commission is charged with preserving and perpetuating fisheries, and providing opportunity for both commercial and recreational fishermen.

“It leaves it to the commission to determine the appropriate balance,” Tweit said.

Fish Wars

Cook Inlet is often a source of controversy for the board, with long, contentious meetings. This winter, the Upper Cook Inlet board meeting is scheduled to last two weeks. That’s nothing new.

“Cook Inlet was pretty controversial back then,” Szabo said.

Szabo said that while the major players have changed since he sat on the board in the 1970s and ‘80s, the issues haven’t. Sport and commercial fishermen were often at odds, and even the drift and setnet fleets had opposing desires.

“When there’s a limited amount of fish to go around, not everyone can have as much as they want,” Szabo said.

Szabo was on the board when it first dealt with the issue of sport and commercial allocations in Cook Inlet. That was one of the hardest decisions Szabo said he helped make.

Generally, the board decided that if the commercial fishermen targeted their effort from July to mid-August, they could catch reds, pinks and chums. That meant sport fishermen would have the best chance at kings and silvers.

That was a “landmark” decision, and didn’t come easily.

Meetings could last from 9 a.m. to 9 p.m., and testimony generally didn’t have a time limit as it does today.

“We went through days and days of public testimony,” Szabo said.

The board also heard from ADFG about historical harvest, and biological needs.

The decision wasn’t meant to reserve any species for one group or the other, but tried to provide both with fishing opportunity.

“We never established that one user group had priority over the other,” Szabo said.

Although the Board of Fisheries process makes management accessible to the public, critics say that it makes it too open, and that decisions become too political, fueling the fish wars.

At an October Anchorage Chamber of Commerce forum, Paul Dale, from the Alaska Salmon Alliance, said that the design of the board is not conducive to solutions that get away from allocative fights and move toward integrated management.

Dwight Kramer, a sportfisherman who heads the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, agreed with Dale at the forum.

The board is the biggest impediment to finding solutions, Kramer said.

The current board has three members considered to represent recreational interests with chair Karl Johnstone, Tom Kluberton and Reed Morisky; three representing commercial fishing with John Jensen, Sue Jeffery and Fritz Johnson; and Orville Huntington representing subsistence users and the Interior.

While three current members — Morisky, Johnson and Huntington — are different than the last Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2011, the split among user representation is the same.

After the Cook Inlet meeting in 2011, Johnstone addressed the role of member background in board decisions after several 4-3 votes that favored recreational interests.

Regarding the current makeup of the board, Johnstone said once conservation issues are addressed, allocation decisions naturally flow from the board members’ experience.

“When you have history and background of commercial or sport user or charter boat operator, they will lean toward group they’re most familiar with,” he told the Journal in 2011. “It’s not unusual to have 4-3 votes if you have a good diverse board, which we have now.

“Historically, years and years ago everyone knew what the outcome was going to be because it was dominated by one user group more than the others. Now we don’t know for sure, it’s split more down the middle.”

The former judge drew a parallel to another body that also typically decides issues by one vote.

“A 4-3 vote isn’t any less law than a 7-0 vote,” he said. “Many of the day-to-day issues in our life, particularly social issues, were decided by a 5-4 vote of the U.S. Supreme Court and they are no less the law than if it was a 9-0 vote.”

At that time, Johnstone also acknowledged the impact of the allocations made at that 2011 Upper Cook Inlet meeting.

“Regrettably, it comes at the expense of somebody because it is a fully allocated fishery,” Johnstone said of the board’s decisions, which he said amounted to “millions of dollars in some cases.”

“When you take one away and give it to another,” Johnstone said, “somebody suffers.”

Next week: Examining the new sonar counter being used on the Kenai River.

• Molly Dischner can be reached at molly.dischner@alaskajournal.com.

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