Board of Fisheries debates board-generated proposals

The Board of Fisheries wrapped up its Soldotna worksession with the discussion of a board-generated proposal to limit the size of boats in the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery.

The board members heard several public comments Tuesday asking them to regulate the Kenai River dipnet fishery to make it safer. One agenda change request which was denied Wednesday, asked the board to limit boats to 50 horsepower or less and ban specifically Thunderjet boats from operating in the area.

The Kenai River dipnet fishery is the most popular personal-use fishery in the state, attracting thousands of participants over the three weeks of the fishery between July 10 and July 31. Most boaters launch from the Kenai City Dock, which is located next to several commercial fishing processors and often has commercial boats moored close by. During the 2016 season, law enforcement received at least five reports of small boats being swamped by larger boats near the dock.

The board denied the agenda change request because the members said they did not feel it met the requirements to be considered out of cycle, but was simply a proposal submitted past the deadline. However, several expressed concerns about public safety in that fishery, and Board of Fisheries Vice-Chair Sue Jeffrey brought forward a board-generated proposal Thursday to address it.

The proposal would have limited boats to less than 50 horsepower, less than 21 feet in overall length and less than 106 inches in overall width. Jeffrey said though the group rejected the ACR, the board-generated proposal would be timely because the Upper Cook Inlet meeting is coming in February and the public would have adequate time to look at it and weigh in.

“We are not in the policy habit of accepting ACRs that are late, but based on a lot of public comment that we heard and anecdotally throughout the last few days, we have heard about this disorderly, unsafe fishery,” Jeffrey said.

However, other Board of Fisheries members disagreed. Board-generated proposals have generated controversy because they can be presented, debated and passed in one day during a board meeting without public comment. Board member Israel Payton said he opposed it because the issue is a controversial one, and a board-generated proposal could dislodge the public’s trust.

Overall, he said he did not think the fishery is out of control. People can choose where to fish if they want to get away from the boat congestion near the Kenai City Dock, he said.

“I have participated in the fishery and observed it, and I would disagree with that,” Payton said. “I think it’s a pretty safe and fairly orderly fishery.”

Board member Reed Morisky agreed with Payton, saying he thought taking action would bring criticism to the board because the proposal didn’t come from the public.

Board member Robert Ruffner said he would support the proposal so the board could have the discussion at the full Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage. Accepting the proposal now would give the public adequate time to review it and comment on it before the meeting at the end of February, he said.

“I’m not necessarily in support of this idea, I’m just in support of generating the discussion,” he said.

Board member Alan Cain suggested possibly amending a proposal already into the book related to placing horsepower restrictions on boats in the Kasilof River personal use dipnet fishery to include the Kenai River.

The board voted against the proposal 5-2, with Jeffrey and Ruffner supporting it.

The board chose to take up two other board generated proposals — one clarifying when 4-inch mesh set gillnets can be used during the early season king salmon subsistence fishery on the Kuskokwim River and the other to eliminate the mature female Bairdi crab biomass threshold to open the fishery.

The latter is a source of contention because the fishery was closed for the season Oct. 5 because the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s survey of the crabs population in the Bering Sea District did not meet the minimum threshold for mature females. Fishermen and industry representatives have appealed to the board to reopen the fishery this year because they felt there was plenty of crab in the part of the fishery west of the middle line at 166 degrees west longitude.

The Kuskokwim proposal is scheduled to be heard at the Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage in February and the Bairdi crab proposal is scheduled for the Kodiak meeting in January.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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