The Alaska Salmon Alliance, a group that was formed by Cook Inlet processors to promote science-based fishery management in Cook Inlet, came to Homer for a workshop Friday to brainstorm ideas to improve the Cook Inlet fishery, the fourth in a series between Palmer and Homer.
ASA has taken a collaborative and inclusive approach to problem-solving in Cook Inlet with the basic assumption that there are enough fish for all user groups if they are managed properly, and expressed dismay at the scorched-earth approach taken by the newly formed Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance that seeks to eliminate an entire historical user group through a ballot initiative.
ASA recognizes that there are conflicts between user groups and stakeholders, but also says that those conflicts pose perhaps the biggest risk to long-term sustainability for Cook Inlet salmon fisheries.
The workshop in Homer was moderated by ASA staff member Hannah Harrison, education, outreach and development director, and attended by about 30 people, mostly commercial fishermen.
Harrison started off by explaining that all comments are anonymous when she writes up the white paper on the workshop, so participants should speak freely.
The group began by identifying some general points of consensus about Cook Inlet salmon that all user groups could agree on, mainly that they belong to everyone, and they should not be managed politically, what Harrison called “ballot box biology,” although it is obvious that not all user groups feel that way, hence the ballot initiative.
Other points of agreement were:
•Salmon habitat is important to all user groups;
•Strong sockeye runs benefit all user groups;
•Stable run strength-size is important;
• Fishing is an important multi-generational way of life;
•Predictability in both management actions and run size is important, especially to processors and commercial fishermen;
•Cook Inlet salmon are a sustainable but not indestructible resource;
•The Board of Fisheries process is not transparent or responsive enough, and the BOF is not equipped to handle the conflicts; and
•Chronic over-escapement represents a significant lost economic opportunity for harvesters and processors.
It was widely felt that the general public does not understand the importance of commercial fishing to the culture and economy.
“I consider PR one of our major problems that we should have tackled years ago,” one participant said.
The group then identified over-arching problems in Cook Inlet.
It was generally agreed that until in-river issues are addressed, the Kenai River king salmon population is not likely to recover. The guided and unguided sport boats fish directly in the spawning beds, and one participant described running up river in his boat and feeling the prop hitting salmon.
The in-river pressure on the kings has risen exponentially since the late 1980s, not only guided sport boats but also river bank fishing, and there are no restrictions on the number of boats on the Kenai River.
It was noted that Cook Inlet salmon resources are fully allocated, and if the size of one user group continues to grow, sport or personal use, for example, then by definition they will be taking away from another user group.
One participant likened the reallocation of stocks to socialism.
“If you take something away from someone and give it to someone else, isn’t that socialism?” he asked.
It was agreed that the mixed stocks of Cook Inlet may be the most difficult to manage, at least politically, especially with the rapidly growing population of the Mat-Su Valley area and the inherent problems as well as political power that brings.
The final task was to brainstorm solutions.
Finding common ground with other user groups was a popular theme, especially finding like-minded sport fishermen who agree that in-river issues are impacting Kenai king salmon.
Participating in the Board of Fisheries process, no matter how flawed, was deemed important, the reasoning being that if they only hear from the other side, that will be the side with the most influence.
It was suggested that turning the Kenai River into a drift-boat only waterway like the Kasilof River would help tremendously with habitat issues, as would limited entry for guided sport boats.
Perhaps surprisingly, the group discussions at the workshops in Palmer and Anchorage, where more sport fishermen participated, produced very similar results, although perhaps from a different perspective, showing how much agreement may already exist.
All groups said everyone has a right to the resource.
All groups said that sustainability and habitat protection are paramount, and that the salmon come first.
And while it could mean something entirely different to a sport, guided sport, commercial or even personal use fisherman, all groups said that current management lacks predictability which inhibits economic development by those doing business in the fishery.
Harrison said that it was remarkable how people have the perception that everyone from “opposing” user groups have the perception that the others do not think they should be able to participate.
“And then you have these conversations, people are always just stunned to learn that other people, generally speaking, have no problem with what they do, and just want to be able to participate in the fishery and to have healthy salmon runs,” she said. “Very few people are interested in the elimination or severe limitation of another user group.”
She said there are just a handful of people who “drive this conflict mobile,” who unfortunately get all the headlines.
From here, Harrison will organize the results of the Homer meeting and have them on the ASA website, www.aksalmonalliance.org/, within the week.
After that, she will compile the results of all the meetings into a white paper that details what was learned.
“That will be distributed around so that people can see what our experience has been in this inclusive, collaborative environment,” she said.
She said ASA will be at the upcoming Cook Inlet Board of Fisheries meetings with the same message, as well as supporting materials to demonstrate that inclusive and science-based management is most desired by the user groups, and most beneficial.
“There’s a lot of common ground,” she said.
Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at email@example.com.