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Lt. Gov. rejects petition to ban set netters from urban areas

By Rhonda McBride 10:19 PM January 6, 2014

The battle over salmon allocation on the Kenai Peninsula will move to Anchorage starting Jan. 31

ANCHORAGE – Supporters of a petition to ban set net fishing call it a “conservation measure.” Opponents decry it as “ballot box biology.”

Despite the war of words, Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell said his decision to reject the petition came down to one key issue:

“It would have an effect of allocating fish between user groups,” Treadwell said. “And that’s not allowed under the [state] constitution.”

Treadwell said he sided with a 12-page opinion from the Alaska Department of Law, which said the petition violates provisions in the Alaska Constitution, which strictly limits the allocation of public money and assets. Under the constitution, the state’s fish and game are considered assets.

In the opinion, the department said, “Were this type of initiative permissible, voters would continue to reallocate stocks to any fishery simply by eliminating specific gear or particular means and methods of catching fish.”

The opinion also expressed concerns about the petition’s impact on future allocation decisions.

“For example, the next initiative might propose to eliminate purse seining, trawling, dip netting or catch-and-release sport fishing in particular areas to increase harvest opportunity for other types of users,” the legal opinion said.

The petition, filed by Joseph Connors of Sterling, seeks to ban shore-based gill nets and set nets in “non-subsistence” areas. Connors is also president of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, a group promoting the petition drive.

Although the language of the petition does not specifically mention commercial Cook Inlet set netters, the department found them to be the main target of the initiative.

Set netters anchor their nets near the shore, where migrating king salmon concentrate as they return to their natal streams. Although set netters target red salmon, the kings run concurrently with the reds, so some kings wind up in the catch.

The incidental catch of kings, though sharply curtailed by recent fishing restrictions on set netters, has long been a source of anger and frustration for sport fishing groups, fighting to boost king salmon numbers.

The AFCA, through its public relations firm, said it was not granting interviews to discuss the lieutenant governor’s decision but questions could be emailed to members.

Connors said in an email the AFCA still believes the proposed initiative meets Alaska laws and is surprised by Treadwell’s rejection of the measure.

“We are reviewing the decision and looking at options including a legal appeal and modifying and refiling the petition,” said Connors in an email. “This is not over, that is for sure.”

Connors has 30 days to file an appeal.

“It’s never over,” said Joel Doner, a set netter who fishes on the eastern shores of Cook Inlet. “If you’re an east side set netter, it’s like everybody’s trying to put your head on a chopping block.”

Even though Doner agrees the controversy is far from over, he’s happy with the lieutenant governor’s rejection of the proposed ballot measure.

“Practically speaking, it would have cost a lot of money,” Doner said. “Both sides would have to run some sort of campaigning. So it would be expensive.”

Had the initiative passed, Doner said the impact would have been devastating to set netters.

“There’s 700 set net permits in Cook Inlet, so 700 small businesses, roughly 500 families would be out of work,” Doner said.

The Board of Fisheries allocates set net permits through a public process.

In its legal review of the initiative, the state Department of Law noted the measure would also undermine the board process, as well as the authority of the state legislature.

Although the AFCA argues the petition would not interfere with the Board of Fisheries or the legislature, groups like the Alaska Salmon Alliance, which represent commercial fishing interests, fear it would.

Most fishermen support the Board of Fisheries process, said Arni Thomson, director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance.

“If we need to make some changes in the process, I think some tweaks to the process can be made,” Thomson said. “But I think the Board of Fish process, overall, needs to be preserved. And I think it’s well grounded in the state constitution.”

Those fighting to ban set netting call it a wasteful and outmoded practice that jeopardizes sports and personal use fisheries, which they say have a bigger, overall impact on the economic health of the Kenai Peninsula.

The battle over salmon allocation on the Kenai Peninsula will move to Anchorage starting Jan. 31, when the Board of Fisheries will meet for 14 days to review more than 200 Upper Cook Inlet fisheries proposals. The meetings are open to the public and will be held at the Egan Center in downtown Anchorage.

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