ANCHORAGE - A commercial fishing group has proposed repeal of the state's sustainable salmon fisheries regulation, claiming that the policy will attract lawsuits and result in judges dictating fishery management decisions.
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The United Fishermen of Alaska say the state needs a guiding policy to promote sustainable management. But the group says that putting such a goal into regulation, as the state did in 2000, resulted in an ill-defined standard that invites lawsuits.
"I don't like court decisions mandating how we manage fisheries, and that's what you're setting yourself up for," said Kathy Hansen of Juneau, statewide chairwoman of the UFA, and author of the proposal before the state Board of Fisheries.
So far such lawsuits have not materialized. What the UFA hopes to get out of repealing the regulation is a mystery to a former Alaska Board of Fisheries chairman who backed its passage.
John White of Bethel said he fears that removal of the regulation could give interest groups more control over individual fisheries. Having a regulation that requires uniform standards from river to river keeps user groups from exerting influence over local fishery managers, White said.
"The policy is user-blind," White said. "It doesn't favor sport fishermen over commercial fishermen, or commercial users over personal-use fishermen.
"Without the policy I'm afraid that in certain political climates one user group would get the upper hand."
The state historically has managed for sustainable fisheries. In 2000, the Board of Fisheries adopted that plan as a mandate.
Among other things, the five-page regulation requires that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game allow enough wild spawning salmon upstream to maintain natural ecosystems and a sustained yield for fishermen.
It also says that where wild stocks are fully allocated, new or expanded fisheries should be restricted.
It's good policy, but it should be an ideal rather than a regulation, Hansen said. Regulations, such as speed limits, are supposed to be clear and easily enforceable, she said.
The salmon policy has many potential interpretations, she said, and it's possible that an interest group that does not like a particular management plan could use the regulation as a basis for a lawsuit.
"Somebody who doesn't like how they're treated will use the sustainable policy and say, 'You didn't follow it exactly,'" Hansen said.
White said repealing the regulation would unwisely give fishermen and groups more power to manipulate individual management plans because regional plans would not be subject to statewide standards.
A key to the regulation is its management transparency, starting with a requirement that state biologists report the conditions of regional salmon stocks to the Board of Fisheries, White said. If those conditions are found to be strained, they must create an action plan for recovery.
After three years of town meetings and general agreement among user groups, White said, the board adopted the policy unanimously. Repealing it could jeopardize the abundance that benefits all users, he said.
"I'm absolutely baffled by UFA's position on this," White said.
The board is scheduled to consider the proposal during its meeting Friday through March 13 in Anchorage.