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Alaska Fish Factor: Setnetting May Soon be Banned in Parts of Alaska

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US - A one handed clap best describes the reaction to the 43,000 signature drop off by anti-salmon setnet advocates at the Division of Elections last week. It means enough signatures were gathered to include the question on the 2016 primary election ballot, and let Alaska voters decide whether to ban setnets at Cook Inlet, Mat-Su, Anchorage, Juneau, Valdez, Ketchikan, and any communities designated as urban and non-subsistence in the future.

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The ban is being pushed one-handed by the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance (AFCA), whose board of directors delivered stacks of signature booklets, followed by a press conference rife with talking points, table pounding, bravado and buzzwords.

“I believe now more than ever that Alaskans want to end the devastating and outdated mode of commercial fishing called setnetting,” exhorted Jim Connors, AFCA president, and a Kenai lodge owner and sport fishing guide.

“I spent six years as a setnetter in Upper Cook Inlet and during that time I caught a lot of red salmon. However, my nets also caught sharks, birds, ducks, flounders, dolly vardens and a lot of king salmon. Setnets are decimating other species in Alaska.”

“Urban, commercial setnet fisheries are unhealthy and unmanageable,” echoed AFCA member Derek Leichliter.

“Setnets are a predatory means of fishing that kill or maim most anything that gets in their path. It’s time to put the fish first and end this setnet bycatch,” said AFCA founder, Bob Penney, to the sound of loud duck quacking from an errant cellphone in the background. “We strongly support commercial fishing; it’s just this one gear type that we oppose.”

If salmon setnets are such indiscriminate killers, why aren’t they banned statewide? “That’s what we’re trying to do,” the AFCA group retorted with hearty chuckles.
Better hold that laughter.

Over the last 10 years the harvest by Alaska’s 2,200 setnetter was 99.996 percent salmon, according to data from the AK Dept. of Fish and Game.

“So .004 percent would be species other than salmon, what some might consider bycatch. It’s almost not measurable,” said Jeff Regnart, Director of the Commercial Fisheries Division.

The breakdown of 2014 setnet participation in the regions where it would be outlawed include:

Valdez/Cordova-29 permits; Ketchikan-0; Juneau-12; and Upper and Lower Cook Inlet-735, which includes Anchorage and the Mat-Su. Of those regions, 84 percent were Alaska residents. In total, the setnetters topped $47 million in gross earnings, according to data compiled by United Fishermen of Alaska.

Support for the setnet ban has yet to extend beyond Cook Inlet. Of AFCA’s $116,000 in campaign contributions, $97,000 was donated by Bob Penney, the rest came from Southcentral donors, plus $200 from Oregon. AFCA also bankrolled the signature booklets by paying $87,000 to the Alaska Libertarian Party to gather the names of voters, according to the Alaska Public Offices Commission.

“The start of this has to start someplace. We haven’t reached out for any further contributions anyplace until we pass the Supreme Court,” Penney said, referring to the final hearing on the measure’s legitimacy scheduled for late August. “Once that takes place, we’ll be in a position to say ‘this is going to be on the ballot’ and that’s what we are waiting for.”

The State of Alaska is appealing a lower court ruling that determined the ballot initiative is not allocative in nature, which allowed AFCA to begin collecting signatures.

Most Alaskans believe that setting fish allocations at the ballot box is bad public policy. But Matt Singer, AFCA legal counsel said Alaska has a long history of voting on resource management issues.

“With regard to methods and means of take, which is what we are dealing with here,” Singer said, “Alaskans have exercised the right to have a say in how people catch fish and wildlife since statehood, not just with fish traps, but with a vote on wire snares, two votes on aerial wolf hunting and a vote on bear baiting because it was not in line with Alaska’s values.”
The State disagrees.

“We don’t think this is the best way to address this issue,” said Regnart, adding that since voting against fish traps at statehood, no fish allocations have been put before Alaska voters.

“Setnetting in Alaska is very important to these local coastal economies. They are long time, family based operations and very important for our ability to manage these sockeye and other salmon populations in these different fisheries.”

AFCA insists that the state Board of Fisheries would decide how to allocate the fish taken from the setnets, and what gears might take their place, such as beach seines, purse seines, dip nets, fish wheels or other options.

“Those would stop the devastating setnet bycatch occurring today,” Penney said.

But they “don’t fit with the terrain,” Regnart rebutted.

“This issue is about Upper Cook Inlet and it would change the allocation of who catches what. The setnetters there catch about half of the sockeyes, and if they were not around, the fishery would look very different. In many years it would be very difficult for us to be able to exert enough exploitation to keep the escapements within the necessary balance,” he explained. “Setnetters in Cook Inlet are an integral part of us being successful in any given year to control that sockeye run. And if they weren’t there, it’s hard for me to imagine what we might do.”

Should the Alaska Supreme Court rule in favor of the ACFA challenge, the setnet ban must be finally approved by the state legislature.

A mighty wind -- Chinook salmon are returning to the Yukon River delta, and while low numbers mean no commercial fishery again this year, the counts are becoming more encouraging.

Even with 55 years of Yukon data, it’s a tough run to track because the timing is so unpredictable, said Phil Mundy, Director of NOAA Fisheries’ Auke Bay lab in Juneau. Mundy has been studying Alaska salmon since the 1970s, but said it was Yukon elders who taught him how to fine tune the run timing.

“They told me ‘the wind blows the fish in the river - everyone knows that, young man.’ And I wondered how that works,” he said, adding that Cook Inlet fishermen told the same thing about sockeye salmon.

“They said, ‘it’s when the wind blows and you get the biggest tide closest to July 17. Everyone know that.’ But we couldn’t figure out exactly how the wind was doing what it did. I didn’t think the fish put up their dorsal fin like a sail to blow into the river, but there had to be something because they seemed to be right, Mundy mused.”

“I used to count fish from airplanes, and I’ve seen this at Cook Inlet and at Bristol Bay where you get the river water piling up against the marine water on the river plume. Then you’ll see the salmon weaving in and out along the edge of the front between the fresh water and the salt water. And I never knew why they were doing that. They will pile up if there is no wind to mix that fresh and salt water to make it brackish. If there is no wind to blow, they will pile up on that front until some other trigger, which we probably don’t understand, sends them all in.”

In 2006 Mundy saw a scientific article that focused on how salmon make the change from fresh to salt water and vice versa.

“There’s this thing called a calcium ion switch, and it is triggered by alternating exposure to different salinities,” he explained. “Young salmon can’t swim straight into salt water because it will kill them, and it’s the same for adults in the ocean returning to their home streams. They have to have alternating exposure to different salinities.”

At the Yukon, Mundy said the wind mixing the water even trumps early ice melts as the best indicator of the salmon arrivals. Today satellite from the Alaska Ocean Observing System make predictions easier and more reliable.