By Jenny Neyman
When the Joint Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force meets in Anchorage on Thursday, it’s slated to consider an idea that, according to a Kenai senator, won’t get much support from commercial fishermen — permit buybacks.
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, who’s on the task force, said the bipartisan group of lawmakers is scheduled to hear a presentation by the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission on permit buybacks for Cook Inlet.
The task force was formed last spring by the Legislature to address dwindling salmon returns to rivers in the Matanuska and Susitna valleys. One theory for why those runs are faltering is because fish bound for northern district rivers are caught in commercial nets in Cook Inlet. To that way of thinking, limiting commercial fishing in the inlet would increase salmon runs farther north.
“Some members on the task force, I think some of them have this — and several of us warned them — they think there is this silver bullet they can go and find and fix the problem, and one of the silver bullets they can play with is a buyout,” said Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association. “We have a big concerns. Is it going to be voluntary or forced?”
Debra Higgins, a staffer in Rep. Craig Johnson’s office, R-Anchorage, the task force chairman, said it is part of the task force’s mandate to at least hear information about buybacks. Wagoner said he didn’t think a permit buyback program would go anywhere.
“We’ll have to wait and see. There aren’t any provisions made for how that would work in Cook Inlet,” he said
“There’s going to be a resistance, for the most part, by commercial fishermen. They aren’t going to want to sell back their permits. That’s how they make their living.”
Maw said UCIDA hasn’t formed an official position on buybacks.
“At no time during the public hearing process did any commercial fisherman give testimony about a buyout, nor will we ever act about a buyout,” he said. “So if something comes out of this task force, they cooked that one up on their own without involvement of the industry, and we have grave concerns about what they may or may not be doing.”
Typically, permit buyback programs entail just that — buying a permit, and nothing more. Not the boat, nets, gear or investments in fuel and other costs commercial fishing entails.
“Some people seem to think if you buy a permit back you’re out of business. For the most part they’re people making their living off fishing, or a portion of their living, I should say,” Wagoner said. “They aren’t going to sell that for the value of the permit because they see more value in it than that.”
Steve Tvenstrup, with UCIDA, said he hoped the buyback idea had fizzled out.
“I’ve never been an advocate of buybacks, every time they talk about it,” he said. “To me, it’s a livelihood, and at age 51 right now I just can’t see it to be feasible to sell my permit and go find another job. They just want to buy the permit, and not the whole operation.”
Wagoner said it’s premature to consider limiting commercial fishing because science hasn’t settled whether commercial nets are to blame for what’s going on in the Mat-Su region.
“In a few years we’ll be able to see what, if anything, we can do about fish returning to the northern district. Nobody knows what the problem is, but we don’t catch all the fish that they’re complaining we catch in the northern district down here in Cook Inlet,” Wagoner said.
Until more answers are available, Wagoner cautions against making policy changes.
“As a matter of fact, nobody’s even sure there needs to be a buyback right now. It’s a lot of smoke and mirrors still,” he said.
Maw said considering a buyback proposal would be “way premature.”
“They haven’t asked us and we haven’t offered. I think there’s lots of available harvest surplus on the salmon stocks, if they would manage the habitat, especially those pike,” he said.
Northern pike, a voracious invasive species that eats young salmon, have been found in northern district watersheds.
Maw said commercial fishermen play a vital role in preventing overescapament of salmon runs, which can cause future runs to diminish. The state mandates managing fisheries for maximum or sustainable yield. To Maw, that means managing to escapement goals.
“You still have to take those fish down to that escapement value. If there are 500 boats, that dictates one fishing pattern, if there’s 250, that would dictate a much higher level of fishing in order to meet escapement goals,” he said. “It’s going to be interesting what this group comes up with. If they’re taking about throwing escapement goals out, that’s a very fundamental shift away from what we’ve been doing for 50 years and why the state was created. And it’s irresponsible, by the way, too. We’ll just have to wait and see what these folks do.”
Wagoner, a former Cook Inlet commercial fishermen, wanted to be on the task force because he was concerned about legislators stepping into a role that’s already filled by the Board of Fish, he said.
“The best place for that to be fought out is not at a Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, it’s at the Board of Fish. The task force is trying to interject itself into the management of a fishery. It’s a very dangerous thing to do, have a lot of elected officials inject themselves into a scientific process. Because, number one, they’re not scientists, and number two, they’re not always honest because they’re out to please their constituents,” Wagoner said.
The task force is supposed to bring recommendations to the Legislature at its next session. So far, none have been formed.
“There’s been absolutely nothing come out of that task force,” Wagoner said.
Editor’s note: Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, chair of the task force, was not available to comment on this story, and task force members Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak/Mat-Su, and Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, did not return calls seeking comment.