A group looking to ban commercial setnet fishing in urban Alaska took its challenge to state Superior Court Tuesday, hoping a judge will overturn a decision by the lieutenant governor to not let a voter initiative head to the ballot.
Matt Singer, representing the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, argued that the state's refusal to allow the initiative to go to voters was fundamentally flawed because Alaska voters have long made decisions related to protecting fish and game. The state disagrees, saying the initiative is unconstitutional because it involves resource allocation, a matter reserved solely to legislative bodies. It also contends that the initiative would wipe out an entire fishery, and that just asking people to switch gear is more complicated than it may appear.
"The measure may conserve, but it confers greater access to a majority group by wiping out a minority group," Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar argued on behalf of the state before Superior Court Judge Catherine Easter.
But Singer said the initiative does not involve allocation, merely a restriction on gear with conservation in mind. He called setnetting an "antiquated and outdated way of fishing that is indiscriminate in how it gets fish." Alaskans have taken other issues related to harvesting resources to the ballot before -- including wolf snares, bear baiting and two efforts to limit aerial wolf hunting. Singer sees no reason why banning setnets shouldn't fall into the category.
"That's why we think the decision is erroneous and sets a bad precedent," he said in a post hearing press conference.
While the proposed initiative is targeted at urban areas -- which includes the Matanuska Susitna Borough, Ketchikan, Juneau, Valdez, Fairbanks and most areas around Anchorage -- the true fight lies on the Kenai Peninsula, home to 55,000 people, where fishing is the economic lifeblood of the region.
Each year commercial, sport and personal-use fishers descend on the Kenai River to scoop up millions of sockeye salmon that move from Cook Inlet into the river. Among those sockeye are a few precious Kenai king salmon. Once known for their size and abundance, kings have been on a steady decline in recent years. Last year, only 17,000 fish swam past the Kenai River sonar -- down from 26,000 in 2012. While that met the river's escapement goals -- or the number of fish state biologists believe must return to the river in order for the fishery to survive -- it was just barely above the low end of the escapement goal range. Only 19,700 fish are expected to return to the river this year -- not much above the minimum escapement goal of 15,000 fish.