Story last updated at 4:04 p.m. Thursday, October 24, 2002

Winter king rule reversed
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

After a 6-0 Board of Fisheries vote Monday, winter kings are back.

"It's big," said Lynn Whitmore, an avid sports fisherman from Homer. "Somebody took something away from us, and we got it back."

Like their commercial fishing brethren, the sport fishermen who hail from Homer and other Alaska ports are a hardy lot. A little chilly weather won't typically keep these folks from chasing after the fresh, chrome-bright king salmon that migrate and feed along Alaska's coastlines during the winter months.

So when the Fish Board ruled last fall to essentially eliminate the winter king fishery by rolling it into the annual five king bag limit, a group of die-hard anglers banded together and took to the political mat. Their argument was simple -- there is no biological justification for the move to limit what has always been a very small fishery.

Finally, following months of meetings and extensive lobbying efforts, and with a general election to decide the state's next governor just a couple of weeks away, the battle over winter kings ended as the board voted to reinstate the winter fishery along its historical lines.

What that means for Homer is a guideline harvest level of 3,000 kings for the Oct. 1-March 31 winter season. During the rest of the year, anglers will have to mark their allotted five kings on the back of their fishing licenses. For the winter season, the daily bag limit will return to two fish per day with no overall limit.

Saltwater anglers in Seward and Kodiak, who joined in the fight to regain the winter fishery, were also given guideline harvest levels, allowing anglers there to also continue catching the so-called feeder kings.

The new rules will likely not go into effect until early next year, according to Nicki Szarzi, a Homer sport fish biologist with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.

For Whitmore, who helped coordinate many of the public meetings and communications with fisheries managers and board members, the return of winter regulations for saltwater kings is a major victory because it showed that, in the end, managers were willing to listen to the people who use the resource.

"A judge doesn't have to manage our fishery, the legislators don't have to manage our fishery," Whitmore said, referring to the court battle that sport fishing groups threatened to initiate. "We stayed within the system, and in the end it worked."

When the board voted to eliminate the winter-season regulations last year, incensed anglers complained that the local advisory committee system had been largely ignored.

After hearing a steady stream of complaints from the communities of Homer, Kodiak, Seward and Southeast, Kelly Hepler, director of the Department of Fish and Game's Sport Fish Division, last spring directed the formation of Local Area Management Plan task forces to help formulate acceptable plans for the various fisheries.

Homer's task force met over the intervening months with members of Fish and Game to go over the fisheries numbers. Past creel surveys show that the Kachemak Bay winter king fishery has never exceeded an estimated 2,500 fish in any one season. Both Szarzi and sport fish biologist Bob Begich helped the group draft the proposal that was eventually presented to the board on Sunday.

One of the original justifications offered by the board for curtailing the winter king salmon fisheries was protecting fish that fall under the Pacific Salmon Treaty. They said that the winter fisheries were targeting kings that had originated in Canadian waters. Those fish are allocated under the treaty, which was signed by the U.S. and Canada to manage allocation issues for salmon along the Southeast Alaska and British Columbia coast.

Whitmore said the Alaska winter king advocates contacted a Canadian biologist from the Pacific Salmon Treaty board.

"He basically said the Homer fishery is a small drop in the bucket," Whitmore said.

This was one of the arguments that accompanied the proposal that Whitmore and others took before the board, and he thought it was a deciding factor.

While board members eventually voted to basically go along with each task force's proposal, they didn't go along with built-in growth in the guideline harvest levels.

Homer had asked for a 5 percent annual increase in the level.

"They don't want to hear talk about growth," Whitmore said, adding that 3,000 fish already allows for some growth in the fishery.

Officials in both the Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries agreed that the process worked successfully for everyone.

"People let the board know the nature of the fishery and how important it is to them, and the board listened," Szarzi said. "I think it would have been irresponsible of us not to respond."

Szarzi added that Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries are both in the business of bringing fishing opportunities to the residents and visitors of Alaska.

Board Chairman Ed Dersham of Anchor Point applauded the board, and Hepler in particular, for giving the public an avenue to reassess the regulations.

"I think it really was a victory," he said. "I was really happy with how it worked out. Both sides ended up understanding each other a lot better."