Bill makes priority of fish, game taken for eating

Critics questions whether legislation would hurt commercial fleet, tourism

Posted: Tuesday, March 02, 2004

State Sen. Ralph Seekins wants to give Alaskans who harvest fish and game for the dinner table first shot when there's a conflict over how to allocate resources.

But some legislators and administration officials question whether his bill stating individual Alaskans have a "very important and fundamental right" to consume fish and game could hurt commercial fishing and tourism. And they worry it could have other unforeseen consequences.

Seekins, R-Fairbanks, said his bill would tell the department and the boards of Fish and Game to give more weight to consumption of fish and game, rather than uses such as wildlife viewing and research, in making management and allocation decisions.

"Normally, there's no conflict," Seekins said. "Abundance serves everyone well."

But if it comes down to a question of whether a migrating caribou herd should be set aside for viewing by tourists versus hunting, "feeding families comes first," Seekins said.

Wayne Regelin, deputy commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game, said department staff strongly support hunting and fishing, but they have concerns about Seekins' bill.

Making it a "fundamental right" could hamstring the department's ability to regulate the activity, including requiring licenses and enforcing trespass laws.

It could also affect decisions the Board of Fisheries must make in allocating fish between sport and commercial fishermen, Regelin said.

State laws already make subsistence use of the resources the highest priority, and give Alaska residents a priority over nonresidents in use of fish and game, Regelin said.

"I'm not quite sure what's broken," Regelin said.

Seekins said telling the department to view hunting and fishing as a right when deciding management and allocation does not mean the activity could not be regulated.

"It's a fundamental right to be able to vote," Seekins said. "That doesn't mean I can vote every Tuesday or I can vote twice or three times."

In an interview before the meeting, Seekins said the bill is not intended to do away with bag limits, seasons and similar management tools that ensure biological health of the resource. He said he would consider adding language to clarify that.

Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau, questioned whether the bill would allow hunters in areas that have been established as brown bear-viewing areas that draw tourists.

Seekins said he does not know anyone who eats brown bear for sustenance.

Elton also questioned the premise that eating fish and game should always have a priority over wildlife viewing. He said tourism provides jobs that put food on many Alaskans' tables.

Even Sen. Scott Ogan, R-Palmer, a staunch hunting advocate, had qualms about the bill, saying he feared it could have unintended consequences and make it hard to regulate hunting.

The committee took no action on the bill Monday.

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