Public weighs in before fish board

SOLDOTNA — Fishermen and the fisheries-inclined turned out by the dozens Tuesday for an open hearing before the Board of Fisheries to air their concerns on a host of issues.

The Board of Fisheries, preparing to enter its 2016-2017 cycle, is holding a work session in Soldotna this week to discuss Agenda Change Requests and non-regulatory proposals and to take public comments. When the session was scheduled in October 2014, the board set aside an entire day for fishermen to make public comments on any issue they wanted to address.

Title 16

Those attending spoke on a variety of issues, but several themes recurred throughout the day. The issue that received the most comments, both for and against, was a non-regulatory proposal requesting the Board of Fisheries to lobby the Legislature to update the state fish habitat permitting process to include specific criteria from the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy.

The proposal, authored by a collection of commercial, subsistence and sport fishermen from all around the Cook Inlet region, asks that the Legislature update Title 16 — the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s fish habitat permit regulations — to more specifically define what constitutes the protection of fish and game. Currently, the law states that the Fish and Game commissioner should issue permits unless the activity is deemed insufficient for the protection of fish, but the law doesn’t clearly define what sufficient protection is.

Willow King, one of the proposal’s 12 authors and a setnetter from Kasilof, urged the board to send the Legislature a letter supporting the proposal.

“I find that the references to protecting fish and game in water are vague,” King said. “... What is beneficial to finances isn’t always beneficial to fish. And salmon have enough trials to go through.”

The parameters for Title 16 do not require a public notice and comment period for fish habitat permits. Several people testified Tuesday that they want the public to have a chance to weigh in on fish habitat permits as well, like Mike Wood, another of the proposal authors and a setnetter near the mouth of the Susitna River.

He said one of the reasons he supports the proposal is the proposed Susitna-Watana Hydroelectric Project, which would have dammed the Susitna River above Devil’s Canyon to produce hydroelectricity. The project received wide criticism from residents and fishing advocates, and Gov. Bill Walker announced in June that the project would go on hiatus.

“I think that a closer look at our state’s sustainable salmon proposal could help provide better guidelines to keep large projects such as Susitna Hydro from even going to the point that they did,” Wood said.

Other supporters wanted the state to take an “anadromous until proven otherwise” attitude toward the state waters. Sam Snyder, engagement director for the Alaska chapter of Trout Unlimited, testified to the board that because only a portion of the state’s waters are catalogued, Fish and Game should assume that streams are anadromous when issuing fish habitat permits if not catalogued. The law also has too much ambiguity for how the commissioner could define the proper protection of fish and game, he said.

“Luckily, so far, we’re not a part of the story that faces the Lower 48, where they’re spending billions of dollars to restore trout and salmon habitat degraded by bad habitat management, overpopulation, large disruptive dams and other impactful projects,” Snyder said. “In Alaska, while there are habitat issues in the more populated areas of the state, we again largely avoided those issues. If we can keep habitat intact, we can really work to maintain healthy fisheries.”

A few testified in opposition to the proposal as well. Andrew Couch represented the Mat-Su Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, a citizen group that provides feedback on fish and game issues to the state, and said the group opposes the proposal because members feel they do not have enough information on it and it could potentially make some activities, like gold mining, more arduous.

“Several members expressed they had inadequate time to review this proposal — it was not included in the public proposal book,” Couch said.

Mat-Su stocks

Several people also brought up the issue of declining sockeye stocks in the Susitna River drainage. The Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission submitted three proposals asking for the stock of concern levels for certain stocks of sockeye salmon to be elevated, and for six stocks of king salmon to be designated as stocks of yield concern.

Within the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy, Fish and Game has several levels of stock concern for declining salmon populations — stocks of yield concern, stocks of management concern and stocks of conservation concern, with conservation concern being the most restrictive on harvest.

One of the stocks the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission is most concerned about is the Shell Lake sockeye salmon stock. Terry Nininger of Wasilla, a member of the commission, urged the board to support the stock designation. Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, which monitors escapement in the lake, reported that only three adult salmon passed the weir at Shell Lake in 2015, as compared to 69,800 in 2006, according to a March 2016 report.

Fish and Game has rarely used the stock of conservation concern designation, but “the Shell Lake issue is unique,” Nininger wrote in his public comments to the board. Pike predation, disease and beaver dams are primary reasons for the decline, but harvest should still be reduced to help aid the stock’s recovery, he said.

“In the short term, this may compromise the interest of sport and personal use fishermen and commercial fishermen, but in the long run, it’s the only action that will return this fishery to its original, natural state,” Nininger said in his testimony to the board Tuesday.

Couch, testifying on behalf of the Mat-Su Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, said the members also support the stock of concern designations.

Bairdi crabs

Another issue that several participants commented on was the closure of the Bairdi crab fishery for the 2016–2017 season, which Fish and Game announced Oct. 5 because of concerns about the biomass of female crabs. A 2016 survey showed that mature female biomass fell below the acceptable threshold, closing the fisheries both east and west of the designated middle line, denoted at the 166 degree longitude line.

The board can decide to take up the issue at this work session. The Unalaska/Dutch Harbor Fish and Game Advisory Committee submitted a record copy to the Board of Fisheries asking it to reconsider the harvest policy so the fishery can remain open, criticizing Fish and Game’s harvest strategy methods and saying the method should be re-evaluated before closing the fishery.

Leonard Herzog of Homer asked for the board to generate a proposal to reopen the Bairdi stock. Though the fishery on the eastern side of the line has declined “precipitously,” the stock on the west side is still relatively abundant, he said. The fishery targets mostly old-shell males, he said.

“It’s really unclear whether or not they’re a help to the future of the resource or not because the females are all clutched and they’re not affecting the female population,” Herzog said.

Josiah Johnson, a commercial fisherman, also urged the board to reopen the crab fishery this year and to re-evaluate the abundance in the fishery.

The board was to discuss the non-regulatory proposals and agenda change requests during its sessions Wednesday and today.

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