Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Editorial — Fighting fair for fishing rights

In the time the Joint Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force spent talking about a Cook Inlet commercial fishing permit buyback program Thursday in Anchorage, the one question that should have garnered the most discussion got the least — whether it is a good idea in the first place.

Early in the meeting, Bruce Twomley, a representative from the state Commercial Fishing Entry Commission, was asked point blank if buying back Cook Inlet commercial permits, thus reducing the number of fishermen, would increase salmon runs in Northern District rivers.

Dwindling returns to the Yentna, Deshka and other tributaries to the Susitna River are the main reason the bipartisan task force was formed last spring by the Legislature. One of the topics it was tasked with considering is a buyback program, on the theory that limiting commercial nets in central Cook Inlet will allow more fish to reach northern streams.

That’s a hypothesis born more of frustration and finger-pointing than science, however.
Twomley’s answer to whether buybacks would increase northern runs was about as unequivocal a “no” as you can get when dealing with fisheries:

“I don’t see how. There isn’t a direct correlation there,” he said.

That should have been the major point of the day, steering the meeting toward productive conversation, like, if buybacks aren’t the answer, what is?

For all the heed paid to Twomley’s answer, it was like he never gave it. It didn’t stop legislators from speculating on how to outright end the commercial fishery, even to the point of asking Twomley about ways around the constitutional statutes that protect it.

Direct answers and straightforward plans didn’t seem to be of much interest to the task force. Neither were Kenai Sen. Tom Wagoner’s occasional interjections explaining that Fish and Game manages fisheries to escapement goals, so even if commercial permit numbers were reduced it would just mean more fish allocated to the fewer commercial fishermen that are left; or that a previous attempt to mandate fish allocations through the initiative process has been struck down by the state Supreme Court.

All in all, it was a disappointing display of shortsightedness to a problem that will take years to sort out.

It’s not that fish in the Kenai area are more important than those in the Northern District, or that people here have any more right to earn a living, their dinner or enjoyment off them.

Low runs in the Northern District are a serious problem that needs realistic, research-based solutions.

If Legislators are going to inject themselves into fisheries management, a realm that’s already complex and contentious, they had better wade in with more diplomacy and less bias than displayed Thursday.

Otherwise, they’ll create nothing but more waves.

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