As both a lifelong Alaskan and commercial fisher, I wanted to share my views on Senate Bill 42, establishing personal use priority in times of salmon shortages. Prime sponsor Senator Bill Stoltze has introduced failed versions of this for seven years, but this session, some legislators are giving it favorable attention. One could ask why such consideration now, when harvests of sockeye salmon in the premier Kenai river dipnet fishery are robust by any measure, and have grown almost every year since its inception.
Wildly popular, it has become an event treasured by many, but also carries a good number of critics, and not just the rightful concerns of private landowners, the city of Kenai, and commercial fishers, but from some surprising quarters as well. ADN writer Craig Medred described Kenai river dipnetters, “Too many of them are slobs, pigs, miscreants, call them what you want. There is no debating this. The evidence is obvious to anyone who visits the mouth of the Kenai River during the dip netting season in July.” In an earlier article Craig Medred thoughtfully commented on the economics of the dipnet fishery, “Commercial fishermen have a strong argument that in terms of economic management their fish are far more valuable than the salmon in the dipnet fishery. The dipnet fishery is like Alaskans taking oil out of the trans-Alaska pipeline instead of sending it to a refinery and taking the cash.”
I know that when developing fisheries policy in Alaska, people need to be mindful of all the affected user groups. Hopefully user groups can agree to damage each other the least amount possible in pursuit of their fishery management and allocative goals. Certainly each user group has different constraints and expectations, most of them reasonable, some less so. Many policies are formed without due consideration for all of the involved user groups. I fear this priority legislation is one of them. I think we need to give each user group what it most needs to survive in the long run, and much less what it simply desires.
Commercial fishers and processors in Cook Inlet need to be able to conduct business every salmon season, and I think this legislation puts that in doubt. While the sponsor wishes for the seemingly desirable and benign priority of dipnet harvests in times of shortages, I doubt he realizes that low historical levels of Cook Inlet salmon returns in combination with current levels of sport and personal use harvests could easily result in no commercial harvest for that season. How many businesses can survive a year off? The law of unintended consequences applies here.
I know that a great many Alaskans enjoy and value the dipnet fisheries. I truly value the mix of fisheries we enjoy; they all make significant contributions to our economy, our culture, or both. Kenai River dipnetting already enjoys a de-facto priority, I believe it is the only salmon fishery in the state which starts, continues, and ends at dates certain, regardless of forecasts or harvest, and in some years, has continued even when other fisheries have been restricted for escapement concerns. Our Board of Fisheries established this preference, do we really need more? If so, should it entail legislative action?
Dipnetters and commercial fishers have more in common than many realize. We both depend on large volumes of sockeye to meet our expectations, and very large commercial sockeye harvests are required in most years to maintain future high sockeye returns; the math and science are compelling and generally accepted. As for a personal use priority, I ask for a different outcome, one in which each user group commits to the survival of each other, after all, as some have said, no one is supposed to actually win the fish war. I see this legislation as divisive, partisan, and unwarranted.
A true Alaskans first solution would be a more respectful decision to have our personal use, sport, and commercial user groups sharing both the bounty of abundance and the burden of shortfalls as they will inevitably occur.
Paul Dale is president of the Alaska Salmon Alliance.