ANCHORAGE — Voters could to be asked to decide whether to ban setnets in certain parts of Alaska under a court decision made Wednesday.
The Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, or AFCA, filed a ballot initiative petition in November seeking to ask voters whether to ban setnets in urban parts of the state, which would primarily impact Upper Cook Inlet setnetters.
Anchorage Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter overturned Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell’s decision not to certify the proposed ballot initiative in a Wednesday ruling and ordered the lieutenant governor to certify the initiative and allow proponents to continue the process toward getting the question on the 2016 ballot.
Treadwell struck down the initiative in January based on a state Department of Law opinion asserting that it would be a prohibited appropriation.
AFCA appealed, and during oral argument, attorney Matt Singer said that organization believed the initiative is not an appropriation, and that the public’s right to weigh in on fish and wildlife management using the ballot initiative process should be interpreted broadly, with the appropriations limitation interpreted narrowly.
Upper Cook Inlet setnetters target sockeye salmon for commercial harvest. Their permits also allow to them to target other salmon species, including kings, that swim into the nets.
Eliminating setnetters in Cook Inlet would likely result in increased catch for in-river sport fishermen, personal-use fishermen, and for the fleet of drift boats targeting sockeye.
Easter agreed with AFCA that the initiative was not a prohibited appropriation.
“(The initiative) does not result in a give-away program or usurp legislative control over the salmon allocation process,” Easter wrote.
In a July 23 press release, AFCA supported the decision. Singer argued the case during oral argument in April, and highlighted the history of ballot initiatives that preserve Alaska’s fish stocks.
“Alaskan voters have a long history of using ballot initiatives to protect fish and game,” Singer said in the statement.
The state’s argument relied, in part, on a prior case — Pullen vs. Ulmer — in which the court said an initiative giving preferential treatment to one user group was a prohibited appropriation.
Easter wrote in her order that the two cases were substantially different, and that comparing the two was like comparing apples and oranges.
Proponents of the setnet ban must still collect about 35,000 signatures before the question can appear on the ballot.
According a its release, AFCA will start collecting signatures once the Alaska Division of Elections finishes preparing the signature packets.
Easter’s decision may also still be appealed to the state Supreme Court.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.