Story last updated at 10:28 PM on Wednesday, April 16, 2008

Legislature OKs controversial task force to study fisheries issues in Cook Inlet

A Senate resolution establishing a joint task force to examine Cook Inlet salmon issues passed both houses of the Legislature in the final days of the 90-day session that ended Sunday, in spite of assurances from opposing legislators that the votes were not there to carry the measure when it came up for reconsideration in both the House and the Senate.

The language in the resolution is combative and suggests the task force will start out with an agenda to restrict commercial salmon fishermen in upper Cook Inlet to benefit sport fishermen before any other issues or concerns are aired. It states that "the sport fishing community is a vital part of the local and state-wide tourism industry and the Cook Inlet region sustains 55 percent of the state-wide sport and personal use fishing effort, and the economic contribution to the state of the in-river sport and personal use fisheries far exceed the ex-vessel value of the Cook Inlet commercial fishing harvests." Neither the resolution nor the studies the statements are based on address ancillary economic benefit of the commercial fishery on the Kenai Peninsula.

At the heart of the issue is escapement in the Susitna drainage, specifically the Yentna River, which runs through the Mat-Su electoral district, home of Senate president Lyda Green, who is up for re-election this year. The Yentna was labeled a stock of yield concern at the Board of Fisheries meeting in February.

Escapement in the Yentna is being studied by Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, which has done weir studies and tag and recapture studies. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has used a different type of sonar in addition to the one that has provided the historical escapement numbers. All three sources have indicated the Yentna is getting well above minimal escapement, and that the original sonar data used for escapement numbers is significantly undercounting the returning salmon. The CIAA study continues this year.

None of that information appears to have been used in the discussion by the Legislature, although it was provided to the Board of Fisheries and used in the board's decision-making process.

Critics of the task force resolution point to the precedent set in second-guessing Fish and Game biologists and the fish board, as well as the lack of public testimony. Sen. Bert Stedman, R-Sitka, read excerpts from several letters he had received into the record on the Senate floor.

The Alaska Trollers Association submitted a letter that read in part, "Resolutions of this nature do nothing but pit citizens against one another, while demoralizing the many fine people who willingly serve on the Boards of Fish and Game, and work for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game."

Stedman also pointed out that the interception battle does not begin or end in Cook Inlet. "All Cook Inlet fish are subject to intercept in Kodiak," he told the Senate. He described the large fleet of seiners with deep nets that fish off the capes in Shelikof Strait, the main thoroughfare for inlet-bound stocks. However, he added, the Cook Inlet fleet bears the brunt of the management decisions to allow fish into the upper district.

However, Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said it's safe to say that sport fishermen in the Northern District feel disenfranchised by the system. "It's getting harder and harder and harder to catch fish in the upper Cook Inlet," he told the Senate.

"The history of Cook Inlet is changing," he added. "I'm told a number of (Cook Inlet commercial fishermen) don't live in the state."

"This resolution simply asks for the formation of a task force to gather information," he continued. "It doesn't have any decision-making authority."

During the discussion on the Senate floor, Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, stressed there is little doubt there are problems, but the task force is not the answer to them.

"This is about the process, and I think this is the wrong process," he said. "We could have hearings with the resource committee, and maybe come up with some solutions. One of those solutions would be to put some money into that system to see where the problems lie. This task force is not the solution."

The task force will be comprised of five members of both the Senate and the House, to be appointed by the leader of each body. No information was available at press time as to whether the task force would include legislators from the Kenai Peninsula.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished in Homer since 1978. She also designs and builds gear for the industry. She currently longlines for halibut and gillnets salmon in upper Cook Inlet aboard the F/V Realist. She can be reached at