Story last updated at 1:39 p.m. Thursday, November 14, 2002

Salmon fishermen have their say
by Sepp Jannotta
Staff Writer

Kenai Peninsula salmon fishermen took some time last week from fall chores of boat-winterizing and gear-mending to voice their concerns and opinions on the future of their industry.

They presented their thoughts during the final Joint Legislative Salmon Task Force public hearing, which was chaired on Nov. 7 by outgoing state Rep. Drew Scalzi, Kenai Peninsula Borough Assemblyman Chris Moss and task force staff member Cheryl Sutton at Homer City Council chambers.

Merlin Cordes, a Homer resident and upper Cook Inlet driftnet fisherman, said he figured he'd come to "kick around ideas" about how to improve the lot of Alaska's ailing salmon fishermen.

The roughly 45 fishermen attending the meeting apparently came for the same purpose. Coming form Homer, Soldotna and other peninsula communities, they represented the full variety of gear types and salmon fisheries from Southeast to Cook Inlet to the Aleutians to Bristol Bay, and they offered almost as wide a range of suggestions and comments to the task force.

With a list of primer questions and copies of previous public comments in hand, the group was the last to weigh in on a statewide discussion that has unfolded during the 10 task force hearings and during the legislators' task force subcommittee deliberations.

The task force will use stakeholder comment to help it determine how the Legislature can revamp the laws and policies that govern the operation and financial infrastructure of the state's fisheries.

While there were a host of issues on the table, first and foremost on most people's minds was how the Alaska salmon industry could find better footing in the global marketplace to compete with farmed fish from Chile and other countries.

The erosion of prices caused by a glut of Chilean salmon and the loss of overseas markets, particularly in Japan, has salmon fishermen reeling as they try to make their boat payments.

"None of us who bought a salmon permit expect to survive the next few years," Bruce Hendrickson, a drift fishermen from Area M, said as he was preparing his thoughts for the Nov. 7 meeting. "We've been ruined by this whole thing."

Hendrickson said the state and federal governments need to step up and lobby the Federal Trade Commission to compensate the commercial salmon fishing industry. Hendrickson pointed to the type of financial safety net that U.S. businesses and farmers received in the wake of the North American Free Trade Agreement.

"Free trade is not free," he said.

There was almost unanimous agreement on quality enhancement efforts designed to help market wild Alaska salmon as a better, healthier product than its farmed counterpart.

But there was less consensus as to how the industry might streamline itself to provide for higher quality and improved economics.

Salmon task force subcommittees had raised a number of possibilities from changes in the rules regarding the harvesting, delivery and processing of fish.

Cordes suggested that Cook Inlet fishermen be allowed more fishing days with daily catch limit to allow for a higher quality harvest to be timed with high early season prices. A daily limit would still allow for adequate escapement, he said.

The response to some concepts, particularly the buyback of permits and the creation of a seafood commission, was chilly.

Don Bunker of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association said he was one of the majority of fishermen who questioned the concept of reducing the fleet.

In the task force questionnaire, fishermen were asked if they "support the Board of Fish process."

Some salmon fishermen, including one from the heavily reined-in Aleutian fishery at Area M, said they couldn't fault the board.

Others were not so kind, voicing a sense of frustration with the process.

"I do not support the present Board of Fish," said Alan Degraffenried, who faulted it for the ongoing allocation struggles for fishermen in Cook Inlet.

How to fix the process was an even tougher proposition.

"The Board of Fish has such latitude right now," Scalzi said. "What we're hearing right now is that the Legislature needs to give the board more direction."

Scalzi said that all the stakeholder comments are part of a primary and essential step in bolstering the legislative process.

Legislative reform for the Fish Board process and other pieces of fishery legislation doesn't come easily, he added.

"What this does is give the Legislature the political courage it needs to enact changes," he said.

Other possible legislative fixes that are currently on the table are changes to the fisheries tax structures, loan programs and financial incentives to make salmon fishing more viable for the men and women who harvest and process the resource.

Scalzi said the Nov. 7 meeting was added at the last moment because he was sure that there would be enough interest in Homer to fill the four-hour time slot. In fact, interest was strong enough that several people who attended the Nov. 1 meeting in Soldotna attended the Homer hearing as well.

During breaks in the action, discussion among the fishermen ranged over commercial fisheries-related topics. There was much talk and interest in the results from the first season of cooperative fishing at Chignik in Western Alaska.

Co-op member Dan Veerhusen chatted with his peers about what the future might hold for Chignik, which will continue to see heavy debate when the Board of Fisheries meets this winter.

Another hot topic were the implications of potential congressional action on federal fisheries legislation and the implementation of North Pacific Fishery Management Council-approved processor quota shares for the Bering Sea crab fisheries.

Sepp Jannotta can be reached at sjannotta@homer