In three weeks, Kenai Peninsula residents will get a chance to air their concerns to the state Board of Fisheries in Soldotna.
The Board of Fisheries will host a work session from Oct. 18-20 at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex in Soldotna, with an informational session held on Oct. 17 at 3 p.m. The first day, Oct. 18, will be set aside completely for public testimony, and the second two days will be to discuss agenda change requests, which are proposals submitted outside the regular three-year cycle, petitions, officer elections and board business.
The work session will provide a chance for central Kenai Peninsula residents who cannot make it to the regular meeting scheduled for Feb. 23-March 8, 2017 in Anchorage to testify before the Board of Fisheries. Despite multiple requests and offers for free meeting space and coffee service from the local governments, the Board of Fisheries declined to have its Upper Cook Inlet meeting in the Kenai/Soldotna area for 2017.
Members of the public can comment on any proposal. No regulatory action will be taken — although the board will discuss the agenda change requests, they will either accept or deny to consider them at the regular meetings in the 2016/2017 cycle.
Three agenda change requests have been filed related to Upper Cook Inlet issues for the October meeting. The first, submitted by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, asks for the regulations on sportfishing services and sportfishing guide services in salt water to line up with those in fresh water, complying with the newly-passed HB 41.
The second requests a limit be placed on the horsepower of boats in the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery. During the 2016 dipnet season, at least four capsized boats and two boat collisions were reported to authorities, according to previous Clarion reporting. The proposal, authored by Soldotna resident George Parks, asks the Board of Fisheries to prohibit boats with engines greater than 50 horsepower and specifically Thunder Jet boats. He wrote that he was concerned that if the boats were not restricted, someone could lose a boat, be seriously injured or drown.
“Boats traditionally used in the dipnet fishery are jeopardized by the wake created by (high horsepower output and large hull boats),” he wrote. “Due to the power potential and hull design of the jet boats it is not possible for them to travel upstream through the fishery without creating a large wake.”
The third asks for the board to lift the restriction on drift gillnets deeper than 45 meshes. The author, Thomas Gilmartin, said in the proposal that the fish are running deeper than before, passing below drift fishermen’s nets.
“One more bad salmon season and a lot of fishermen will be out of business,” he wrote.
Outside the agenda change requests, attendees can comment on any one of the other 173 proposals on the Upper Cook Inlet docket. Upper Cook Inlet’s regularly cycle has almost four times as many proposals as the next largest area in the 2016/2017 cycle, which is Lower Cook Inlet with 46 proposals.
There are also a set of non-regulatory proposals, which cover general fisheries issues outside of existing regulations. A number of these apply to fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet, both sport and commercial. The Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission asked for the Shell Lake sockeye salmon to be managed as a conservation concern because of low abundance, and for the Susitna River sockeye salmon stock to be designated a Stock of Management Concern. Both designations come with additional restrictions on harvest. The organization also asked for the Board of Fisheries to develop a policy for when a stock of concern can be delisted once it has sufficiently recovered.
“The absence of recovery standards is causing anxiety and confusion among stakeholders that depend on these resources,” the commission’s proposal states.
On the other side of the argument, both the United Cook Inlet Drift Association and the Central Peninsula Fish and Game Advisory Committee — a group of citizens in the Ninilchik, Happy Valley and Anchor Point areas — wants to see the Stock of Yield Concern designation repealed from the Susitna River sockeye salmon. The committee argues that the designation was based on a faulty sonar counting system and the commercial fishery is unfairly restricted because of the designation.
“It is suspect that the designation for stock of yield concern remains solely for the purpose of special interest allocation agendas to keep the invalid commercial fishing restrictions,” the advisory committee wrote in its proposal.
UCIDA also requested that the Board of Fisheries consider developing a commercial fishery for pike in the northern drainages of Cook Inlet. Many of the streams in the Mat-Su basin are infested with invasive northern pike, which prey on the native salmonids. Fish and Game has spent significant resources and time on pike eradication, and developing a commercial pike fishery could bring some value to those efforts while reducing the burden on Fish and Game, the organization wrote in its proposal. To work on the proposed fishery, UCIDA suggested a task force be formed to develop an action plan, goals, gear types, methods and regulations.
Conservation organization Cook Inletkeeper asked the Board of Fisheries to host public hearings with testimony on the proposed Chuitna Coal Mine’s effects on fish and fish habitat, ensure the mine does protect fish habitat and oppose the mine if relevant information cannot uphold habitat.
The final proposal, which recently received backing from the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly through a resolution, asks the Board of Fisheries to require Fish and Game to incorporate principles of the Alaska Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy into its habitat permitting practices. The authors, a collection of commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen from around Cook Inlet, wrote that the current permitting policies do not have adequate criteria for whether development will protect fish habitat.
“The Commissioner of the Department of Fish and Game is directed to issue the permit unless the plans for the proposed construction work are ‘insufficient for the protection of fish and game,’” the authors wrote. “The problem is: neither the law nor criteria exists to ensure that permitting decisions will protect resident and anadromous fish species and related fish-dependent habitat processes.”