An Outdoor View: Trouble with gill-netters

For years, I railed against subsistence fishing in the Kenai. I dreaded that it would mean gill nets in the river. I feared that it would be a federally enforced source of bitter divisiveness among local residents.

When I heard about the recent decision of the Federal Subsistence Board to allow subsistence gill nets in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, I felt sick. I noted that the motion to allow gill netting had passed on a 4-3 vote by the federal board, signaling that the issue already was contentious, even before anyone put a gill net in the river. It seemed that my worst fears had come true.

However, after thinking about it for a while, I’ve had second thoughts. Given the fact that there remains no limit on the number of fishing guides on the Kenai and Kasilof rivers, and that the Kenai River Sportfishing Association seems hell-bent to maximize the number of tourists that can be squeezed onto these rivers, one 60-foot-long gill net for the community of Ninilchik seems relatively harmless. Not that I approve of it, but at least the people who fish with that gillnet will be catching salmon for food, not catching and releasing them simply for fun and profit.

Yet another gill net-related event was Governor Walker’s appointment of Roland Maw to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. What next? Appointing Rod Arno, executive director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, to the Board of Game?

There’s a good reason why Maw would be the first Cook Inlet commercial fisherman to serve on the fish board since 1980. He shouldn’t be on the board for the same reason that Brent Johnson shouldn’t have been on the board. Johnson, a longtime East-side set-netter and set-netter advocate, was appointed by Governor Sarah Palin in 2009. However, most legislators saw that Johnson would not only be a lightning rod for conflict, but in large part would be ineffective due to his ties to commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, so they didn’t confirm his appointment.

Maw is a longtime, outspoken commercial-fishing advocate, and executive director of United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA). Even more damning, UCIDA — with Maw aboard — has in recent years twice filed lawsuits in federal court that would return Cook Inlet salmon management to the federal government. This alone means that Maw has a contentious relationship with the board before he even takes a seat. With him on the board, every allocative proposal — and nearly all proposals are allocative — would trigger heated debate.

Maw’s association with drift-gill net fishing puts him at odds with all other user groups, even the East-side setnetters, who often are shut down while the “drifters” are allowed to fish. If seated, Maw can be expected to try to reverse some of what other user groups have gained in salmon allocation decisions made by the board in the past two decades.

No matter how or where you fish in Alaska, the seven-member Alaska Board of Fisheries is important to you. This is the board that makes all the state regulations for fisheries. In recent years, it has been balanced, with fair representation of all user groups. Maw, being a stronger advocate of commercial fishing than the other board members, will upset that balance. This board’s business is too important to jeopardize by appointing someone to it who is certain to be a negative influence.

Governor Walker, as well as the Legislators who will have to confirm Maw’s appointment, need to be told that it would be a big mistake to have Maw on the Board of Fisheries. The best scenario would be for the Legislature to vote against Maw’s confirmation before he has a chance to sit in a board meeting.

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

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