An Outdoor View: Fish wars

Seduced by the word “fish,” I watched the reality TV show “Alaska Fish Wars” on National Geographic Channel last year. The most exciting part of this blessedly brief series, shot aboard drift gillnet boats on Cook Inlet, was pulling sockeye salmon out of nets. I’ve seen more conflict on “Cupcake Wars.”

The real Alaskan fish war is being fought on shore, and it’s between sport fishermen and commercial set-net fishermen. Leading the sport side is Kenai River fishing guide and lodge owner Joe Connors, president of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance (AFCA). AFCA members are determined to stop commercial fishermen from using set gillnets in Cook Inlet. Connors has called the nets a “wall of death” for salmon bound for their natal streams. The group’s Web site refers to set gillnetting as an “indiscriminate and wasteful harvest method.” If things go as planned for the AFCA, Alaska residents will vote to ban commercial set gillnetting in Cook Inlet in the 2016 primary election.

Heading the commercial side of this war is set gillnetter Andy Hall, president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association (KPFA). The KPFA claims to have 300-plus members, 84 percent of whom are Alaska residents. In a Dec.20, 2014, opinion piece in the Clarion, Hall stated that, if the AFCA has its way, it would end set net fishing in Cook Inlet, put hundreds of Alaska families out of work and destroy one of the Kenai Peninsula’s biggest economic drivers. The AFCA’s effort to ban set nets in Cook Inlet isn’t about saving fish, he wrote, but about putting more king salmon in the river for sport fishermen to catch. “That’s not conservation,” he opined. “That’s greed.”

Allied with KPFA is United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), a statewide, commercial-fishing trade organization. When informed that banning set gillnets would be up for a vote next year, UFA President Jerry McCune, said, “We will be fighting this until the end.”

I haven’t chosen sides in this war. On the one hand, I’d like to see more king salmon in the Kenai River, which is what this fight is really about. Catching the first king of the year, if not in May, certainly by June, used to be one of my favorite things. I miss it. But I’m not sure I miss it enough to shut down all the set gillnetting in Cook Inlet.

For one thing, the use of set gillnets can’t possibly be why Kenai River king salmon runs have been so dismal in recent years. That’s been happening to king salmon runs all over the state, and probably is due to some ocean-related cause.

Another reason I’m not ready to ban set gillnets is that I don’t harbor much affection for the actions of people behind the banning effort. Nor do I think much of Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA), a group that promotes catch-and-release of king salmon as a “useful management tool” and the Kenai River as an “economic engine.” KRSA is too close to Alaska’s burgeoning sport-fishing industry, and seems more interested in money than conservation. AFCA head Joe Connors is a KRSA member. Bill MacKay is on the board of both KRSA and AFCA. Bob Penney, considered by set-netters as the archenemy, is a founding board member of KRSA. He sits on the AFCA Board of Directors, and likely is its main source of funding. Both groups probably have heavy war chests, always useful in time of war.

Some of you may remember “Project Us,” hyped by the KRSA in 1988 as the ultimate solution to the Kenai River salmon allocation problem. It would’ve closed a three-mile-wide strip, from Ninilchik to the East Foreland, to all commercial salmon fishing. Fish traps in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers would’ve harvested sockeyes that were surplus to escapement needs, and the fish would be sold, with proceeds going to compensate set netters for their losses.

I remember standing up at a Soldotna Chamber of Commerce meeting and calling Project Us a bad idea. I saw several problems with it, and included them in my Clarion column (Aug. 19, 1988). One was that it would yank more than 1,000 people out of their chosen work and way of life. Although I had cursed the set nets more than a few times myself, I asked myself, “What need is so pressing that it justifies destroying these people’s way of life?”

I’m still asking that question. And in the days ahead, while this fish war escalates and gets more and more ugly, I’ll be asking it again and again.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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