Discussion of a Cook Inlet commercial fishing permit buyback program at a meeting of the Joint Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force last week ranged from the caveat that any such program would have to include voluntary participation from fishermen to speculation on ways to extinguish the fishery — whether fishermen wanted to be bought out or not.
The bipartisan legislative task force met Thursday in Anchorage with Bruce Twomley, commissioner with the Commercial Fishing Entry Commission.
The task force was formed by the Legislature last spring in response to dwindling salmon returns to rivers in the Susitna River drainage. A Cook Inlet commercial fishing permit buyback program was one of the options the task force was charged with considering, under the idea that reducing the number of commercial fishermen in the inlet would allow more salmon to return to rivers in the northern district.
“There are some very frustrated people from some of their experiences,” said Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla. “I’m speaking of, in this case, sportfishermen. They’re some of my neighbors and friends.”
That result of a buyback on Northern District salmon runs is not a foregone conclusion, however. Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, posed the question to Twomley: Would a Cook Inlet permit buyback program increase salmon returns to the Susitna drainage?
“I don’t see how. There isn’t a direct correlation there,” Twomley said. “I mean, the notion of limited entry is it gives managers one variable that they know is under control — they know there’s going to be a certain number of units of gear fishing, and that can help them plan for the fishery.”
It’s the decisions made by in-season fisheries managers that have an impact on salmon returns, not the limited entry commission determining how many permits are in operation, Twomley said.
“We’ve got only limited tools, and our tools give us some limited control over the number of units of gear that can be out there, but all in-season regulations of what those fishermen can do is left to the Board of Fish, and I’m pretty far removed from that,” he said. “So I would not see something we did about the numbers having an immediate effect, because it’s up to people on the other side of that equation.”
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, added that the decisions of in-season fisheries managers are based on meeting in-river escapement goals. Limiting the number of commercial fishermen in the inlet through a buyback program wouldn’t mean more fish get past commercial nets, he said.
“It doesn’t matter if there’s 450 drift permits out there and boats fishing or 300, their overall goal is to harvest enough fish where they meet those escapement goals,” Wagoner said. “And so what you would do with a reduction of the number of permits fishing Cook Inlet, you would increase the production per boat that’s fishing Cook Inlet, even after the reduction of permits.”
The issue of whether a buyback program would be an effective means of increasing salmon runs in the northern district got little more discussion. The task force turned its attention to talk of ways a buyback could be accomplished.
Twomley gave an overview of the drift net and set net commercial salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet. He noted the fisheries have one of the highest levels of participation he’s seen, compared to other fisheries the commission has looked at, with 80 percent or more of the permits being fished. The drift net fishery has 571 permit holders, and grossed an estimated $13 million in the 2007 season. The set net fishery had 738 permit holders and grossed about $10.5 million in 2007. Many of those fishing are Alaskans — 70 percent in the drift net fishery and 82 percent in the set net fishery.
“I found that to be substantial and a respectable figure,” he said.
Attaching a price to those permits for the purpose of a buyback program is difficult to do. Twomley explained that the commission estimates the value of a permit by tracking all permits sold among fishermen and averaging those prices. Currently that figure is $33,300 for a drift net permit at $13,300 for a set net permit. But that doesn’t include all the other investments involved in fishing, including gear, boats and fuel.
“The cost of getting somebody to retire from the fishery could be greater, will likely be greater, than the costs of the figures that I’ve given you,” Twomley said.
The task force chairman, Rep. Craig Johnson, R-Anchorage, noted that the only commercial fisherman who’s testified to the task force on the matter of buybacks estimated he has $1 million wrapped up in the fishery.
“I think it would be somewhat naive of us to think that someone would be rushing in to sell their permit for $33,000,” he said. “I want to caution, if I could, the committee on the value of it. It’s almost a fair market, it’s what you could get for it.”
Twomley said a buyback program runs the risk of going afoul of the state constitution, which, on one hand, stipulates open access to resources, but on another allows a limited-entry fishery with certain provisions. The Limited Entry Act would allow a buyback if its purpose is to create a well-conserved, economically healthy fishery that allows enough participation to protect those who depend on it, he said.
“To be constitutional, a limited-entry system has to impinge on the open-to-entry principle of the constitution as little as possible. If a limited-entry system goes too far and goes over this constitutional line to become too exclusive, unconstitutional … at that point the state has a duty, and under the statute it’s our responsibility, to put more permits back into the water,” Twomley said.
In answering a question from Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak/Mat-Su, Twomley said that limited-entry permits are a privilege granted by the state, rather than a guaranteed right. At the same time, he said a buyback program under the Limited Entry Act would have to be voluntary, even if it were a private effort created and financed by fishermen.
Rep. Mike Doogan, D-Anchorage, floated some suggestions he termed as hypothetical that would get around the statutory provision requiring enough permits be available to protect those in the fishery. What if a buyback program was offered and everyone wanted to sell — would that extinguish the fishery, or would the state be obligated to offer more permits?
“If all the fishermen in a fishery elected to sell their permits, that could end the matter. And if the fishery were gone, that doesn’t create a constitutional issue, I don’t think. …,” Twomley said. “If all of the participants did not so elect, it would pretty quickly run into the problem of a fishery that might look too exclusive.”
Twomley said he didn’t think it likely all fishermen would want to sell.
“I have known some of those people, and the last thing they want to do is get out of the business. Their families have been in it for years and years,” he said.
Doogan also wanted to know what leeway the Legislature had in revoking the permits of those who didn’t want to sell.
“I’m not proposing this, I simply want to know whether that is an option by itself or an option in conjunction with buying some of the permits and simply removing the privilege of those who choose not to sell,” Doogan said.
Twomley answered that the Legislature has reserved the power to eliminate or modify permits without compensation.
“We’d have to decide whether we wanted to,” Doogan said. “Apparently we have the authority, and the question would become whether or not the Legislature has the desire to extinguish a fishery all or in part by revoking permits.”
Stoltze hypothesized that banning gillnets in the inlet, either through the Legislature or the public by way of the initiative process, might get around the constitutional challenges of a buyback program.
“By initiative, under a conservation measure, could there be a banning of gillnets? That wouldn’t be restricting the permits, just the means and methods (of fishing),” Stoltze said.
It’s theoretically possible, Twomley said, but the findings showing such a move was in the interest of conservation would have to be sound. He suggested consulting the attorney general for a final determination of the issue.
Stoltze speculated that an initiative seeking to ban gillnets might affect the value of commercial permits to the point where fishermen would want to sell.
“That’s not far-fetched. I’ve had people talk about that and I’ve done my best to ramp down that type of sentiment — for now,” Stoltze said.
He said there’s a lot of pent-up frustration over the situation in the northern district and the lack of resolution to it through the legislative process.
At the conclusion of the discussion, Johnson said he understands the topic is contentious, and left the door open for further exploration of the issue.
“We don’t know how many people would step forward if we were to offer a program in Cook Inlet,” he said. “I certainly don’t think we know the effect of it if we moved down that road.”