Kenai King Debacle, Non-confirmation of Webster show Upper Cook Inlet is Different

On Tuesday, April 8 a joint session of the Alaska State Legislature took the almost unprecedented action of failing to reconfirm a standing member of the Alaska Board of Fisheries (BOF) who had been nominated by the Governor to serve another term.

Vince Webster, a commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay, was not confirmed by a vote of 29-30 and will no longer serve on the BOF. A vast majority of Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks legislators voted in opposition to Webster.

The factors specifically leading to Webster’s failed confirmation included his leadership in the recent meeting of the BOF on the issue of lowering the escapement goal for late-run Kenai River king salmon and his continued reluctance to support action which threatened the continued dominance of commercial fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet (UCI), such as precautionary, prescriptive, paired step-down measures that share the burden of king conservation for all user groups.

However, these issues in isolation would not have been enough for 30 members of the legislature to vote against his reappointment. The larger issue at play here is the frustration felt by most residents of Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks that their interests are being continually ignored or subjugated by the BOF and the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG) institutional processes that were set up for and are still largely biased toward the state’s commercial fisheries.

In the aftermath of the 2012 season where the lowest and latest run on record confounded management of UCI salmon fisheries, the BOF created a task force with instructions to identify the best mix of fishing opportunity during times of low king salmon abundance and the best means of attaining the escapement goal. Webster was co-chair of the task force along with Board member Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna.

ADFG used the task force process to present the results of the department’s run reconstruction and interim escapement goal recommendation. ADFG has recommended a new escapement goal that is significantly lower than the old goal and brings with it a list of uncertainties. The old goal based on split beam sonar was a Sustainable Escapement Goal (SEG) of 17,800 – 35,700. The new goal is a SEG of 15,000 – 30,000 and is measured by counting king salmon with the newer and more accurate Didson sonar and expanding the Didson count by a factor of 1.28 to account for fish not counted by the sonar beam in past years (Didson count range of 11,700 – 23,400).

Outside peer review pointed out that there are at least three aspects of the analysis and recommendation that argue for cautious application of this new goal. First there is no brood year return data to support a SEG of less than 26,000; second, an acknowledgement that we are experiencing low production of king salmon, most likely a result of ocean conditions; and third, the expansion factor of the Didson count adds risk to fish stocks.

Last season ADFG reopened commercial set net fishing at the tail of the season only after 18,000 Didson counts for kings were recorded in the river; this season ADFG will keep the fisheries open when there are projected to be more than 12,000 Didson counts – a difference of 6,000 kings this year that will be available for harvest over escapement.

Instead of advocating a precautionary approach as recommended by some members of the UCI task force, Webster submitted regulatory language at the recent BOF meeting directing ADFG to manage for an even lower number than 15,000. His substitute language in RC75 and RC 88 instructed ADFG to fish the commercial fishery normally until mid-July and only then consider scaling them back in an effort to assure the minimum escapement.

Webster’s highly allocative proposals would have resulted in severe restriction of the sport fishery prior to any restriction in the set net fishery and most alarming, they would have prohibited retention of king salmon in the personal use fishery prior to the start of the season or any hint of restriction in the set net fishery.

Unrestricted set net fishing on a low run would have limited in-river returns during July, substantially impacting the sport fishery even if it were unrestricted. Webster’s one-sided RCs did not fairly represent all perspectives expressed in the task force process and effectively derailed the chance of the Board making progress on this issue at the statewide meeting.

As obvious as Webster’s “bias” might seem and in fact did seem as evidenced by his failure to be confirmed, this sort of institutional bias against both the precautionary principal and the UCI non-commercial salmon fisheries has been part and parcel to the process of the BOF and frankly, ADFG since their creation.

The BOF process was created to visit the many areas of the state and seek solutions to the disputes that arise in these mostly rural, mostly commercial and subsistence fishery dominated settings. It is when, during that couple of weeks every three years that they come back to the hustle and bustle of UCI in Southcentral Alaska that the BOF usually fails to realize that the region is different than other areas of the state.

The legislature gets it. UCI supports Alaska’s largest and most economically valuable recreational fisheries. Sport and personal use fishing is heavily concentrated in the region, and the economic values associated with these activities are very substantial. By contrast, UCI commercial fisheries yield a small fraction of the state’s commercial harvest and the associated economic values are very modest. Over the past decades the economic values of the UCI sport and personal use salmon fisheries have greatly surpassed those of the commercial salmon fisheries by every available measure.

Just from the Kenai River, Alaskan residents who participate in the personal use and in-river sport fisheries harvest about six million pounds of salmon per year to feed their families. With Southcentral Alaska home to more than half of the state’s population, this equates to about 15 pounds of salmon per person in the region. The average American eats about 15 pounds of seafood per year, about 90 percent of which is imported. The average resident in Southcentral Alaska harvests as much salmon for personal consumption as they consume from all sources of commercially produced seafood.

Households in communities on the Kenai Peninsula rank with the highest percentages of participation anywhere in the state for personal use fisheries. Households in Anchorage and the Mat-Su have the largest numbers of participants in the Kenai Peninsula personal use fisheries. The majority of participants in these non-commercial fisheries are low to middle income families for whom the issue of food security throughout the year is a foremost concern.

The hundreds of thousands of voting Alaskans who directly benefit from the UCI non-commercial salmon fisheries want the resource taken care of and they want a fair opportunity to share in that resource. They want salmon escapement goals set based on the best available science. When the best science is uncertain, they want the precautionary principal to be utilized to ensure that the resource is adequately protected. They want reasonable harvest opportunity in the sport, guided sport and personal use fisheries given to them in the codified regulations to translate into real fishing opportunity.

If the sport fishery for late-run king salmon in the Kenai River is restricted at historic low abundance, people want to see paired restrictions in the set net fishery. They are angry with intensive set net fisheries and unpredictable emergency openers which disrupt personal use fisheries where Alaskan families share in the state’s resources and catch their own food. They are frustrated with an intensive mixed species and stock commercial drift fishery in the UCI central district that can reduce the sport fishing opportunity to harvest coho salmon in the Susitna and Little Susitna drainages to next-to-nothing.

Is Webster’s ouster just a one-off occurrence or more likely, a legislative first shot across the BOF and ADFG conference table? Proposals for the next UCI regular meeting of the BOF were due this week to ADFG and the meeting is scheduled for next February. In the meantime, projections are for low abundance of both king and coho salmon and high abundance of Kenai sockeye salmon for the 2013 season. That’s the combination most difficult to manage for.

The BOF adjourned their March meeting after simply accepting ADFG’s recommendation to lower the Kenai late-run king salmon escapement goal to an historic low level and tossing the responsibility back to ADFG of allocating the resource amongst user groups during the fishing season. Picking winners and losers, and allocating the resource isn’t something that ADFG is charged with or particularly good at. Webster’s ouster most likely will not be the last word the BOF or ADFG hears from a railbelt dominated legislature.