Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 11:30 AM on Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Copper River dipnetting again before fish board

By Cristy Fry

The Fairbanks Fish and Game Advisory Committee, with support from the Chitina Dipnetters Association is trying to get the Board of Fisheries to reclassify dipnetters on the Copper River as subsistence users after the board solidified its definition of "a subsistence way of life" in response to a court order in 2010, and then determined that Copper River dipnetting did not fall under that definition. That board decision placed Copper River in the "personal use" category, which, unlike subsistence use, does not take priority over other user groups.

The board's definition of a subsistence way of life was clarified to mean "a way of life that is based on consistent long-term reliance on fish and game for the basic necessities of life."

Copper River dipnetting has gone through several classification upheavals. It was considered personal use from 1980 until 1999, when the Board of Fisheries changed it to subsistence, and then reversed that decision in 2003. The fishery takes place in the Chitina subdistrict of the Upper Copper River district, at the confluence of the Chitina and Copper Rivers.

This time around, the advisory committee states in its proposal that the 2003 reclassification decision was based on "incorrect and incorrectly presented data." It goes on to read, "The decision was influenced by a flawed analysis of 'users' rather than 'uses' as required by the Joint Board's subsistence policy and procedure. The department's position, stated in testimony, was that it '... did not need to follow Legislative intent ... ." The department position provided to the board was in opposition to the legislative intent of the state's subsistence law."

Public comments on the proposal are predictably split between opponents, largely residents of commercial fishing communities, who point to the $300,000 motor homes that many dipnetters drive hundreds of miles from Fairbanks or Anchorage while taking time off from their $90,000-per-year jobs to partake in what they consider a recreational fishery, a luxury many qualified subsistence users could only dream of, and proponents, mostly the dipnetters themselves, who say they rely on the resource to feed their families.

One of the concerns about a personal-use priority on the Copper River is the considerable lag time between when fish are able to be caught by commercial fishermen at the mouth of the river and beyond, and when the fish pass the counter, 48 miles upriver. That time presents difficulty for managers who are trying to assess run strength and avoid over-escapement, as well as allow commercial fishermen to harvest as much of the resource as possible while still allowing for the required number of fish for escapement, personal use and subsistence harvest. In years with concentrated runs, a majority of the fish could push past idled commercial nets waiting for managers to see the necessary escapement for a personal use priority, leading to lost revenue and over-escapement.

The 2010 board clarification of the meaning of subsistence user helped lead to an effort by state Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, to get a personal-use priority passed by the Legislature. Stoltze introduced a bill that would restrict all other user groups except subsistence and personal use in times of shortage, essentially giving dipnetting the same protections subsistence users enjoy.

The bill was met with much opposition as it was seen as the Legislature jumping into the allocation battle, which has traditionally been left to the Board of Fisheries.

In testimony before the House Fisheries Committee in March, 2010, Stoltze painted it as a resident/nonresident issue, stressing that many commercial and sport users are nonresidents.

Opponents stressed that many, in fact, are local residents and provide crucial support for coastal communities.

Sitka commercial and sport fisherman Matt Donahoe told the committee at the time, "In the future, in hard times, if you're reallocating fish away from the commercial fishermen, who are vital to their communities, to a different user group, I'm really concerned with that. I would prefer the status quo, far and away," he said.

Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, spoke in support of the bill, saying it would elevate personal use to the same level as state subsistence, which is open to all residents in state waters, as opposed to federal subsistence, which takes place in federal waters and is open only to rural residents. He added that it would be in keeping with state policy toward consumptive fisheries.

The bill failed to make it out of committee.

The Alaska salmon fishery has entered its second re-certification as sustainable with the Marine Stewardship Council, which if successful would make it the only U.S. fishery to gain the MSC sustainable level three times.

The fishery, first certified in 2000 and re-certified in 2007, covers all five species of salmon in Alaskan waters, over all sixteen geographical management units.

The organization serving as the client for re-certification is the Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation.

Jim Browning, executive director of AFDF said, "Alaskans take pride in the successful management of our salmon resources to produce long-term sustained-yield as required by Title VIII of our state constitution, and it is important to have these accomplishments affirmed by the Marine Stewardship Council. The MSC label helps Alaska's salmon harvesters and processors tell people around the world that Alaska takes good care of our marine and freshwater environments."

Kerry Coughlin, regional director of MSC Americas, said, "The Alaska salmon fishery made a statement about Alaska's commitment to and confidence in its sustainability practices that served as a model for fisheries around the world in its previous certifications and MSC welcomes the Alaska salmon fishery into assessment toward potential MSC certification for a third time."

MSC certificates are issued for five years and require that the fishery undergo and pass annual surveillance audits in order for the certificate to remain valid during that period.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.