By Jenny Neyman
Effectively, not much would change with the passage of House Bill 41, which would re-establish the fishing guide registration and logbook program in Alaska that sunsetted in 2014. And the biggest change — increasing the fee structure $50 to $100 for guides and guide businesses — didn’t get much response at a public meeting in Soldotna on Nov. 17, held by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get feedback on the bill.
But guides did have comments to make on how the program works — or doesn’t, or could, at least, work better.
“There’s a degree of anxiety out there among guides that it’s going to get misused and they’ll end up becoming criminals because they didn’t do something quite right,” said Joe Connors, owner of Big Sky Charter and Fish Camp in Sterling. “Conditions — it’s rainy, it’s crappy, the wind’s blowing, somebody’s got a crying baby — whatever. The guide is trying to do his best and we want to make sure that you understand that.”
Andy Szczesny, owner of Alaska Fish and Float, who guides for resident species on the upper Kenai River, talked about pouring rain soaking the paper logbook sheets, and clients giving him fishing license information on a smartphone, where he can’t verify the information himself.
“It’s difficult at times. And believe it or not, we can make a mistake, and we could get a ticket, any one of us in this room that’s a guide. If you say you can’t, you’re better than me after 31 years doing this,” he said.
Szczesny and other guides at the meeting said the logging requirements are too cumbersome and the potential for fines too onerous.
Mel Erickson, of Alaska Gamefisher, runs halibut charters in the saltwater as well as river guiding for salmon. He said that it can be difficult for guides to complete the forms how and when they’re supposed to.
“You’re out there in the rough water and you’ve got six people you’re dealing with and some of them are puking, and some of them are scared. And then you get in and you’re trying to deal with that and they just want off the boat right away and there might be some stuff you don’t have filled out yet. Eventually, you’re going to get it filled out but sometimes the timing of it just doesn’t happen when it’s supposed to be done,” Erickson said.
To complicate matters, logbook requirements are different for salt water versus freshwater guiding, and the consequences for error can vary, as well. Five different agencies have authority to check logbooks. Citations issued by an Alaska agency — like Fish and Game or Alaska State Troopers Division of Wildlife — would incur fines according to the state bail schedule. Some federal agents are commissioned to write citations on behalf of the state of Alaska. But if others, like NOAA, issue a citation, it could go through federal court in Anchorage.
And if a citation is given in the Kenai River Special Management Area, the guide could be on the hook for further consequences from the state Parks department, including losing out on wages from a three-day suspension, Szczesny said. As a result, Szczesny said, some guides might throw away their logbook entry sheets and receipts if they think they could get a citation, and Fish and Game would lose out on that information.
“So you get a ticket, deal with it, then state Parks issues a three-day suspension deal. It’s like a double jeopardy thing, like a $3,000 fine plus your fee. As a guide, I do not want to get a ticket with dealing with this crap,” Szczesny said. “… If a guy thinks there’s a chance he might get a ticket, all he has to do is pull out those white copies and throw them away. And you have to realize that’s happened, a lot, because they’re late. That shouldn’t be a thing that you want happening if you want the information to be good,” he said
Tom Taube, deputy director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish, said Fish and Game uses the logbook data for a variety of purposes, including in reporting to the Board of Fish and in helping inform preseason and in-season management decisions.
“Without any data, there is more likely going to be conservative management and possibly reduced fishing opportunities,” he said.
Robert Begich, area biologist with Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish, said that local managers find the logbook information useful. Fish and Game’s harvest surveys provide a lot of data that does overlap with logbook information, but surveys come in after the season is over, whereas logbook sheets are turned in during the season. Begich said they’ve used logbook data in deciding on preseason restrictions for the king fishery in the Kasilof River, and in gauging coho catch rates in the Kenai River to see if the run is improving.
“(And for) resident species, our management’s only going to be as good as the information we have,” he said.
The program has evolved over the years, starting in 1995 with saltwater guides being required to register with the Fish and Game, then freshwater guides in 1997. By 2005 guides had to be licensed and the logbook requirements went into effect. That law sunsetted in 2014. House Bill 41 essentially reinstates the licensing requirements — that guides have liability insurance, a sportfishing license, be a U.S., Canadian or Mexico citizen or resident alien and be certified in first aid — and bumped up the licensing fees a bit. The bill passed the House last session but didn’t quite clear the Senate.
Taube said the statewide program was instituted as a way to establish a good reputation for Alaska guides.
“It also protects the industry from unprofessional and unethical guides that could damage the reputation of the Alaska sportfish guide industry. We’re trying to market a high-quality guiding program here in the state, and we feel these things, the guide licenses and log program, helps that,” Taube said.
Sgt. Ken Acton, a division of wildlife trooper based in Soldotna, said that causing guides grief over logbooks is not his department’s goal.
“I don’t want my troopers to take a lot of your time. You’re out there making a living doing this. We want to just make this quick and go, and we’re out of there,” Acton said.
Acton said his department prefers a common-sense approach emphasizing education in enforcing logbook requirements, and said that his department hasn’t written many citations for logbook violations over the years — seven in 2013, 10 in 2014 and three so far in 2015 for the entire Kenai Peninsula and surrounding waters. Taube also said Fish and Game doesn’t take a hard line on the logbooks.
“The department wants accurate information, we want it preferably timely, but we give leeway,” Taube said “… Our staff aren’t sitting there waiting for one minute past then calling troopers and saying, ‘This guy’s a week late.’ We hear it here, everybody is afraid of tickets, but there aren’t that many issued. We’re not trying to create the anxiety, we’re just trying to get good information.”