Judge finds Chignik salmon co-op legal

Posted: Tuesday, October 01, 2002

ANCHORAGE - A Juneau judge on Monday ruled in favor of the Alaska Board of Fisheries in a lawsuit challenging the legality of a commercial salmon fishery cooperative at Chignik.

Dissident independent fishermen who sued earlier this year, claiming the fish board overstepped its authority, may appeal.

Salmon fishermen formed the cooperative over the summer to save expenses and share profits by designating some members to fish in waters off the Alaska Peninsula on behalf of the entire group.

"We're thrilled," said Jamie Ross, a fishermen and co-op organizer. "We're not just happy for us. We're happy for all of Alaska."

The Chignik co-op was viewed by many people in Alaska's beleaguered commercial salmon industry as an important experiment to cut costs and help Alaska's wild salmon compete on price and quality against fierce competition from foreign salmon farms. Observers said such co-ops might be tried in other troubled Alaska salmon fisheries.

Normally, Alaska's salmon fishermen race one another for fish. In Chignik, however, 77 of about 100 Chignik seiners parked most of their boats, catching the fish with a much smaller fleet.

They shared expenses and every co-op member received at least $20,000, regardless of whether they caught any fish.

Two fishermen who elected not to join the co-op, Dean Anderson and Michael Grunert, sued the board, saying the plan unfairly allocated most of the fish to the co-op. They questioned whether the allocation violated the "common use" and "equal treatment" clauses of the state constitution's natural resources article.

Superior Court Judge Patricia Collins ruled the co-op does not violate the constitution and that each Chignik fishermen has the same chance to either join the co-op or remain independent. She also ruled the board had the authority to pass the co-op regulation in January.

"That's exciting, good news," said Board of Fisheries member John White of Bethel. If the judge had ruled against the board, it would have "stifled our room to move" to help the commercial salmon industry, he said.

"I'm excited that hopefully some innovative thinking to move us as a salmon industry out of this morass is going to find a little clear sailing," he said.

Heather McCarty, who represents the independent fishermen, said she was "really disappointed and surprised" by the ruling. She said no decision on an appeal had been made.

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