By Jenny Neyman
A proposed ballot initiative that would ban set-netting in nonsubsistence areas of the state, Cook Inlet chief among them, was snagged from going to the signature-gathering stage by Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell, who announced Monday that he was rejecting the initiative on the recommendation of the Alaska Department of Law.
The newly formed Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance submitted the measure Nov. 6 as a conservation effort to protect declining king salmon runs, charging that set netting catches too many kings, even though the gear type targets other species of salmon.
Clark Penney, executive director, said in a release Monday that the rejection is “puzzling” and the alliance is considering appealing the decision. It has 30 days from Monday to do so.
The Division of Elections determined that the initiative proposal does have enough valid sponsors to continue to the step of gathering voter signatures statewide, Treadwell notes in a letter to the AFCA. However, he states that the Department of Law recommended rejection because the effect of the proposal would result in an allocation of resources (in this case, king salmon) prohibited by the Alaska Constitution, based on the 1996 Alaska Supreme Court decision in Pullen v. Ulmer, finding that preferential treatment of certain fisheries over others is an appropriation not allowed by initiative.
“Were this type of initiative permissible, voters could continue to reallocate stocks to any fishery simply by eliminating specific gear or particular means and methods of catching fish — for example, the next initiative might propose to eliminate purse seining, trawling, dip-netting or catch-and-release sport fishing in particular areas to increase harvest opportunity for other types of users. This would ‘prevent … real regulation and careful administration’ of Alaska’s salmon stocks, contrary to the purpose of the prohibition on initiative by appropriation,” according to the Department of Law’s opinion.
The AFCA points out that Alaska’s first ballot initiative regarded banning the use of fish traps as a fishing method, as it was seen as outdated and destructive. Penney also states that the terms of the proposed ban would be applied statewide.
The Department of Law opinion takes a different view — that by banning set netting in all areas of the state without a subsistence designation, the ban would still effectively target Southcentral because other urban areas — such as Juneau and Valdez — don’t have set netting. As such, the ban would allocate kings away from the inlet’s east side set-net fishery to in-river sport and personal-use fisheries, making it an appropriation not allowed by initiative, the Department of Law states.
“This effort is but the latest in a long string of initiatives where Alaskans have exercised their rights to protect fish and wildlife by regulating improper methods and means for harvest,” Penney states, pointing to Texas, Alabama, Florida, Louisiana, New York, California, Washington and Oregon as other states that have restricted or banned the use of set nets.
“In the 25 years since the first state took this step, no set nets have been allowed to return. Not one fish processor in these states went out of business after set nets were banned,” Penney states.
Opponents, though, say the initiative is a fish grab and would put fishermen, fish processing workers and others out of work.
“We referred to it as the set-netter ban, not the set-net ban. It’s not just a set-net permit ban, this would eliminate the livelihood of some 500 Alaska resident families who set net to make a living. We’re happy to see it dead on arrival,” said Arni Thomson, executive director of the Alaska Salmon Alliance.
Ross Baxter, a board member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association and one of the initiative sponsors, said he’s disappointed the initiative proposal was rejected. He sees it as a way to help protect declining fish runs.
“My position is just one of conservatism. I don’t know how we can possibly sustain future runs of salmon when they are so many interest groups that are accessing the same resources,” Baxter said. “… The fish runs’ ability to perpetuate long after you and I are gone and the ability for people to enjoy salmon in this part of the world diminishes greatly if we don’t do anything.
“Once they’re gone it’s too late, so this is just a proactive step. I’m not even much of a fisherman, I just believe in the fishery being well managed. It is a world-class experience and there should be enough of the resource for everyone,” he said.
“There are several ways to share the resource but the specific set-netters issue is one where I just think there is too many permits, no oversight and as a direct result of this we’re seeing skewed numbers of how we’re managing the resource. And it just seems prudent to take a conservative posture and at least eliminate one of the threats to the continued survival of the species,” Baxter said.
Thompson said his organization also prioritizes the sustainability of salmon, but thinks that can be achieved without killing off user groups.
“The ASA remains committed to working cooperatively with all salmon users and fish managers. We’re focused on ensuring healthy salmon returns for all user groups in Cook Inlet for generations to come,” he said.
He doesn’t believe the initiative process is an appropriate vehicle for making fishery management decisions, particularly allocative ones.
“We don’t think it should be used for fisheries, period. This pits Alaskans against their urban neighbors and it’s not in the best interest of the resource,” Thompson said.
Treadwell recommends that groups work through the existing Alaska Board of Fisheries process.
“We have urged the parties to work together with the Board of Fish to address concerns about set nets and fisheries allocations,” he stated.
Even though the Board of Fisheries process can feel slow — with regions being addressed on a three-year cycle — it’s a good framework, Thompson said. But he would like to see more opportunities to address pressing issues in a quicker time frame, similar to the way the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council incorporates input that comes from informal discussions beyond the official council meetings.
“Their process is slower, however, we have the opportunity to step outside the process to initiate informal dialogue that can eventually resolve long-term allocative solutions,” Thompson said. “And we have started talking to people about a dialogue process for these contentious issues in which we could bring representatives from all the user groups from Kenai, Anchorage and the Mat-Su valley, identify core issues and a suite of potential solutions. It can be done within the Board of Fish process, parallel to Board of Fish meetings, and come back to the Board of Fish with some hoped-for consensus solutions. It’s not easy, but it can be done.”
For more information:
Department of Law opinion: https://ltgov.alaska.gov/treadwell_media/initiatives/13PCAF%20Attorney%20General%20Opinion.pdf
Department of Elections sponsor signature verification: https://ltgov.alaska.gov/treadwell_media/initiatives/13PCAF%20Elections%20Signaure%20Verification.pdf