Mat-Su lawmakers anticipate fish fight

Posted: Tuesday, April 08, 2008

ANCHORAGE - Legislators in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough are gearing up for a fight over fish because they say people in the fastest growing area of the state are getting shortchanged when it comes to salmon.

As the legislative session nears an end, the lawmakers are hoping to tilt the balance of power away from commercial fishermen and more toward sport anglers and other users. They are proposing measures that could revolutionize fishery management in Cook Inlet.

"What you're seeing is a manifestation of the frustration," said Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, who represents a chunk of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

Mat-Su lawmakers argue that commercial fishermen are netting salmon that otherwise might swim to popular northern sportfish streams.

It's an assertion commercial fishermen and some lawmakers dispute.

People in Mat-Su are worried salmon numbers are dwindling in the Susitna River and other drainages and they want changes now, Stoltze said. He along with Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and other Mat-Su lawmakers unveiled a trio of actions this session:

Those include:

• Language in next year's state budget that would close down the Department of Fish and Game commercial and sportfish management office in Soldotna and move the staff to Anchorage, the state's population center. Backers suggest the managers are too close to commercial fishing interests in Soldotna.

• A bill introduced by Green that would transform the makeup of the Board of Fisheries, which regulates commercial and sport salmon catches. The bill would change the board from seven to nine members, with six seats reserved for sport, dipnet and subsistence users and three for commercial fishing interests.

• Resolutions in the Senate and House that would create a Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, to be composed of 10 legislators appointed by Green and House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez. The task force would look at how to boost salmon returns in the Mat-Su region. It also would take a look at buying out commercial fishermen.

Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said Mat-Su residents have lost confidence in the managers.

"Our people feel like they've been abandoned by the Board of Fisheries," said Huggins, who chairs the Senate Resources Committee.

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