Supreme Court decision leaves fishery regulation to fishery regulators

  • Saturday, January 2, 2016 5:40pm
  • Opinion

The Alaska Supreme Court on Thursday reversed a Superior Court decision and side with the state in determining that a ballot initiative to ban the use of setnets in urban areas of the state to be unconstitutional.

We applaud the court’s action in settling this issue.

The initiative has been particularly divisive here on the Kenai Peninsula, where commercial fishing interests — including setnetters — compete with sport and personal-use fishing interests for allocations of upper Cook Inlet salmon. Several years of weak king salmon returns have exacerbated the situation, as commercial harvest opportunity has been restricted and sport fishing limited to conserve Kenai and Kasilof river kings.

We see the court’s decision not as a victory for one side or a defeat for the other, but as an important precedent for all fishing interests when it comes to fishery allocation and regulation.

Let’s be honest, if a measure to ban one type of fishing in the name of conservation appeared on the ballot, how long would it be before another popped up? If a proposal to ban setnets was to have been determined to be constitutional, so would a proposal to ban rod-and-reel fishing over the same conservation concerns. There are enough politics in fishery management already. Management policy based on the wishes of whichever group can put together the most effective political campaign would be devastating for Alaska’s fisheries.

In its ruling, the court found that “the initiative would result in a give-away program of salmon stock from set netters to other types of fishers.”

More importantly, the court found the initiative “would significantly narrow the legislature’s and Board of Fisheries’ range of freedom to make allocation decisions.”

We have our concerns about the way the fish board process currently works, but it remains the best way to address fishery allocation, regulation and conservation issues.

There are still plenty of debates to be had about Cook Inlet fishery management — the Supreme Court’s decisions certainly didn’t change that. Various user groups around Cook Inlet have started to find common ground solutions to addressing king salmon conservation, something ballot initiative threatened.

With the initiative off the table, we hope to see those efforts continue in the coming year.