The initiative to ban set nets in urban areas of Alaska is an environmental issue. It is about protecting fish stocks and other sea animals from an outdated, harmful type of fishing gear. Set nets are simply a wall of death.
Eight other states have voted to eliminate or enacted stringent limitations on these set nets after witnessing the environmental and ecological damage these nets cause. Set nets are notorious for snagging unintended victims or “by-catch.” Anything that passes near these nets can get tangled, including species that are threatened or in decline, such as our precious Kenai king salmon that have seen a dangerous drop in numbers. In fact, set nets have the highest rate of by-catch of any fishing method allowed in our state waters, meaning that their impact on ecosystems is very damaging.
Opponents of this initiative will argue that the proposed set net ban is about trading 2,300 set net-caught kings for 157 sport-caught kings and losing out on the money from a profitable commercial industry. The math is faulty.
Kenai King salmon populations have declined by 80 percent over the last decade and the set net fishery has contributed to their dwindling population with increasing rates of Kenai king salmon by-catch. Both the sport and the set net fisheries have endured forced closures over the last three years due to alarmingly low Kenai king escapement numbers.
Sport fisheries also endure strict and enforced gear limitations throughout the season, yet the set net industry has done nothing different. In commercial efforts to catch sockeye and boost the bottom line, the plight of Alaska’s kings have been ignored. It’s time for Alaskans to take notice and take action.
The economic argument about set-net versus sport-caught kings bottoms out when you consider this: no amount of money will buy back Alaska’s wild Kenai king salmon once they are gone for good. Alaskans can’t make money off a resource that has disappeared.
We need to let the kings get to their natural streams to spawn and rebuild a healthy population. If that requires stricter limiting on king fishing for all user groups for several years, I am all for taking those measures.
Many set net supporters say that the end of set nets will be the end of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet. That is not true. In reality, set nets are just one method of harvest. Those reds now caught by set nets will still be harvested by other commercial means. That decision regarding gear type will be up to the Board of Fisheries There are plenty of other harvest options that have significantly lower rates of by-catch kings and are more environmentally responsible. The drift net fleet in Cook Inlet does a remarkable job at keeping by-catch levels low.
In Washington and Oregon, fishing permit buyback programs have ensured that fishery management decisions do not adversely impact the economic wellbeing of the community. Alaska has plenty of options — we just need to be progressive and forward thinking.
We all agree that commercial fishing is an economic engine in our state, and no one wants to see the end of this way of life in Alaska, which is exactly why we need measures like the urban commercial set net ban to protect fish populations and make sure they stay healthy and abundant for future generations. If we hope to continue this profitable and meaningful industry in the future, we need to be responsible stewards of our resources.
Any species in jeopardy must be protected, or we will see the demise of our natural salmon runs just like in the Pacific Northwest. The heart of this initiative is conservation, and we need to start now before it’s too late. This initiative would only affect set nets in Alaska’s urban areas. Rural, subsistence, and personal dipnetting would not be affected.
Our children and grandchildren might not fish with the same methods that we use now, but at least they will be fishing.
Joe Connors is the president of the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance.