A bill that has been filed and failed every year since 2009 that would create a priority for personal use fishing seems to be getting legs this year.
Senate Bill 42, also called “The Alaskans-First Fishing Bill,” would prioritize personal use fisheries when restrictions are implemented to achieve a management goal. Only subsistence fishing would have a higher priority.
Sponsored by Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, the bill would be precedent-setting if passed. It would mean the Legislature had crossed the line into fisheries management and allocation, something currently up to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries.
Currently management balances restrictions between commercial, sport and personal use.
The bill is getting much more legislative support, and ADFG commissioner Sam Cotten expressed support for it at a committee hearing.
It remains to be seen how the measure would impact commercial salmon fishing in Upper Cook Inlet, according to ADF&G area management biologist Pat Shields, who said the department has not had any meetings on the subject.
“If the bill passed, we would have to receive some instruction from the Board of Fisheries as to what it means when the PU fishery has a priority,” he said. “What actions would they want us contemplating regarding a priority, in the sport and commercial fisheries, how would that look, what would the step-down provisions be.”
Shields said restrictions are more difficult to place on the PU fishery than on the commercial fishery, because the commercial fishery is accustomed to openings and closures based on run strength.
In 2009 the commercial fishery was shut down after July 23 after only 420,000 sockeye had passed the sonar in the Kenai River, but the dipnet fishery was left open without a restriction in bag limit, even though the Board of Fisheries had determined that the sockeye fishery “is to be managed primarily for commercial harvest.”
The dipnetters took an estimated 390,000 fish that year, and annual harvests now top 500,000.
Sen. Stoltze has made no secret of the fact that he is a foe of commercial fishing in Cook Inlet, and some fishermen are concerned that the PU priority is a further attempt at removing the industry. If dipnet fisheries in the Mat-Su drainages are shut down due to stock concerns, the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet could also potentially be shut down.
There are about 80 PU fisheries in the state for finfish and shellfish.
Cristy Fry can be reached at email@example.com.