ANCHORAGE - Gov. Tony Knowles upped the ante Wednesday in an already bitter fishing dispute by calling for an end to the interception of Western Alaska chum salmon by Alaska Peninsula fishermen.
The move is in response to the latest collapse of salmon runs in Western Alaska rivers.
At a news conference in Anchorage, Knowles said the interception of chum salmon by commercial fishermen threatens the subsistence and salmon escapement needs of Western Alaska.
``There has to be dramatic action taken,'' said Knowles, who acknowledged that cutting the harvest for Alaska Peninsula fishermen would be difficult and controversial.
Knowles said he had an obligation under the Alaska Constitution to manage the state's fisheries for sustained yield and said state statutes establish subsistence as the highest priority of any harvest.
Knowles has directed the Alaska Board of Fisheries to take action to stop the interception and has asked the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to take steps to reduce the bycatch of fish bound for Western Alaska rivers.
Communities along the Yukon and Kuskokwim Rivers and on Norton Sound have, for years, argued that commercial fishermen in what's known as ``Area M'' were harvesting salmon bound for Western Alaska rivers.
The Area M fishermen harvest chum salmon as bycatch during their June sockeye fishery, but contend that they catch only a small number of the total chum run. They blame the poor returns in Western Alaska on climatic changes in the ocean.
Bob Juettner, administrator for the Aleutians East Borough, said Knowles' action would effectively shut down the Area M sockeye fishery and would have disastrous economic consequences for communities on the Alaska Peninsula.
``I'm shocked,'' Juettner said. ``This is the death knell for the local economy. We cannot survive without the June fishery.''
It isn't possible for Area M fishermen to harvest sockeye without catching chums, Juettner said.
Knowles acknowledged that there may be a number of causes for the collapse of Western Alaska fisheries. He called the management action a first step in addressing the problem.
Knowles said he also is asking Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, for $30 million over the next five years for a biological study to determine the reason for declines in salmon fisheries.
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