Sen. Frank Murkowski, a vigorous opponent of commercial fishing closures in Glacier Bay National Park and Preserve, held out hope for the industry at a hearing Thursday in Juneau.
``There's an election in November and the possibility of turning this around dramatically is not beyond the realm of possibility,'' said Murkowski, an Alaska Republican who chairs the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Following a 1998 federal law, the National Park Service has ended some commercial fisheries altogether in the bay, closed some areas to all fishing, and left other areas open only for a final generation of fishermen.
The outer waters of the park, where much of the catch has been taken in the past, remain open to commercial fishing. But fishermen have said the closures will cost them income and a lifestyle that can't be measured in money, and will devastate the fishery-dependent economies of small communities near the park.
``We are struggling to accept that this is a storm we cannot outrun,'' said Barbara Cadiente-Nelson of Juneau, whose family fishes in the bay and elsewhere.
She was one of two fishermen invited to speak at Thursday's committee hearing. Murkowski was the only senator present.
Congress appropriated $8 million to buy out several Dungeness crabbers whose fishing grounds were closed and $23 million to compensate anyone else hurt by the restrictions. A Park Service draft plan on how to spend the $23 million is expected by mid-September, officials said.
But Murkowski suggested in a news conference that even if fishermen accepted compensation, the closure issue wasn't over. There might be a way for them to reimburse the government if the bay were reopened, he said.
Congress' action in 1998 followed a Park Service effort to put forth similar rules after decades of controversy. At Thursday's hearing Murkowski blasted the Interior Department for wanting to close fishing in the park.
``No evidence was ever offered that fishing was detrimental to the park's resources in any way,'' Murkowski said, ``and there was every reason to believe the closures would have a profound effect on local communities from Hoonah, Gustavus and Pelican to Juneau and Petersburg.''
The Park Service wanted closures because its founding laws forbid commercial extraction of resources unless Congress specifically allows for it, said Destry Jarvis, a senior official in the Interior Department. He was the only invited speaker who didn't represent Murkowski's position.
Murkowski also asked Jarvis whether the Park Service would allow commercial fishing to continue until the U.S. Supreme Court rules on the state's lawsuit about who owns submerged lands in Southeast. The court has agreed to hear the case, but it could be years before a decision is reached, he said.
Jarvis said the agency would have to follow the 1998 statute. He also said the Park Service has the authority to manage the bay even if the state owns the submerged land.
Murkowski later said Congress should pass a law to set aside the closures until there's a court ruling.
Murkowski and Jarvis also sparred over subsistence fishing in the park. The Park Service's view is that it's not authorized in several older parks, including Glacier Bay, under the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act.
``We didn't preclude subsistence,'' Murkowski shot back.
Sure you did, Jarvis said.
He added that all the fishery resources that would be available under subsistence are open under personal-use fisheries. And the agency is working with the Hoonah Indian Association to develop a cultural fishery to pass on traditions.
But Robert Loescher, president and CEO of Sealaska Corp., the Juneau-based regional Native corporation, said he had assurances at the time ANILCA was debated that subsistence would be allowed in Glacier Bay.
``We are the people of Glacier Bay,'' he said. ``Our access, our use of natural resources, our songs, dances, crests and stories relate to Glacier Bay and represent our cultural heritage.''
A longstanding bill by Murkowski to reopen commercial fishing and subsistence in the park is stalled in Congress and going nowhere this year, said Murkowski spokesman Chuck Kleeschulte.
David Brooks, an aide to Sen. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico, the committee's ranking Democrat, said in an interview that he hasn't heard of any interest by the Democratic minority to undo the fishing restrictions. He said the minority viewed Thursday's hearing as informational.