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Episode 38: Follow-up Frontiers – Kenai Fish Wars

By KTVA Alaska 7:01 PM January 17, 2016

From time to time on Frontiers, we revisit stories we aired previously and bring you up to date on new developments.

Last summer, we went to the shores of Cook Inlet on the Kenai Peninsula to look at the debate over an initiative spearheaded by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, a group with a board made up of longtime sport fishing advocates.

It was the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of the decades-old Kenai Fish Wars, one that had the potential to affect other commercial fisheries.

Through the initiative, the Alliance sought to ban setnets in certain parts of the state to protect king salmon. The language of the ballot measure directly targeted Cook Inlet setnetters.

Initiative backers say their main goal is to prevent setnetters from catching kings as they make their way back to the spawning grounds on the Kenai River.  Their mantra: every king counts.

But on New Year’s Eve last year, the high court ruled the initiative is unconstitutional – and in so doing, affirmed the right of the Cook Inlet setnet fishery to exist.

The court’s decision has allowed for a brief time out in the fish fight, that some, like Sen. Peter Micciche, are hoping to use to find common ground between the sport fishing industry and the commercial setnetters.

In this program, we’ll look at one of the options Micciche is exploring – the legalities of buying back setnet fishing permits and lease sites.

We also talked with Pat Shields, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Kenai-area management biologist for commercial fisheries. We found him crunching numbers for the upcoming season. His king salmon forecast will be out in a few weeks.

Last summer’s king count was hopeful. The run seems poised for a turnaround, but it’ll take another season to tell whether the kings are truly on the comeback trail. Last year, biologists met their king escapement goals, but recent runs have been well below average.

Shields and his counterparts at Fish and Game have a difficult job – trying to protect the kings while managing the red salmon or sockeye run, which coincides with the king run.

One person we had hoped to interview for this week’s program is Bob Penney, the real estate developer who is a major source of funding for the Alliance.

Although Penney is currently out of state on business, I talked with him at length about doing an interview via Skype or Facetime, but he declined — though he did promise to sit down with me after he returns to Alaska for an off-camera conversation.

I’d really like to have Bob Penney on Frontiers some day.  It would have been great to have his voice on the show.

Regardless of whether you agree or disagree with him, he’s a major player in the Kenai Fish Wars, which has taken a lot of oxygen in managing Alaska’s fisheries.

With the state’s fiscal crisis, and less state money for fisheries, it wouldn’t hurt to have sport and commercial fishermen cooperate more. What might Bob Penney contribute to this process? Under what circumstances?

Penney made it clear in our conversation that he plans to keep fighting against setnets, which he believes are a destructive and outmoded means of fishing.

The Alliance hasn’t spoken out much on this issue, other than a press release, expressing disappointment in the court’s ruling. In the statement, Penney suggested the group might turn to the federal government for help.

Our guest in this week’s program is Andrew Jensen, editor of the Alaska Journal of Commerce. Jensen has followed this issue for many years, so we asked him to provide analysis of the Alaska Supreme Court decision, the potential for buybacks of setnet fishing and site permits, as well as the likelihood of federal intervention in the Kenai fish wars.

We also have an extended Web Extra interview with Jensen, where he takes a deeper dive into the issues.

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