For those who might have missed it, here's the front-page story we published in this morning's newspaper:
Mat-Su, Kenai fish war brewing
SPORT VS. COMMERCIAL: Legislators want more salmon for northern Inlet.
By WESLEY LOY
JUNEAU – Mat-Su legislators who say people in their area are getting shortchanged on salmon are pushing measures that could revolutionize fishery management in Cook Inlet, the state's most popular fishing hole.
The lawmakers have rolled out a package of legislation to tilt the balance of power in the Inlet from commercial fishermen to sport anglers and other users. And with a week left in the legislative session, they're hoping to land something big.
"What you're seeing is a manifestation of the frustration," said Chugiak Republican Rep. Bill Stoltze, who represents a chunk of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
People in Mat-Su, the state's fastest growing region, are worried salmon numbers are dwindling in the Susitna River and other drainages and they want changes now, Stoltze said.
He along with Senate President Lyda Green, R-Wasilla, and other Mat-Su lawmakers unveiled a trio of actions this session:
• Language in next year's state budget would close down the Department of Fish and Game commercial and sportfish management office in Soldotna and move the staff to Anchorage, the state's population center. Backers suggest the managers are too close to commercial fishing interests in Soldotna.
• Green introduced Senate Bill 284 to transform the makeup of the Board of Fisheries, which regulates commercial and sport salmon catches. The bill would change the board from seven to nine members, with six seats reserved for sport, dipnet and subsistence users and three for commercial fishing interests.
• Resolutions are nearing a vote in the Senate and House to create a Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, to be composed of 10 legislators appointed by Green and House Speaker John Harris, R-Valdez. The task force would look at how to boost salmon returns to the Inlet's northern reaches – that is, the Mat-Su region – and would explore a buyout of commercial fishermen.
The heart of the Mat-Su delegation's argument is that commercial fishermen are netting salmon that otherwise might swim to popular northern sportfish streams.
It's an assertion commercial fishermen and some lawmakers dispute.
Both sides can point to studies and statistics to bolster their argument, but the fisheries and the science are highly complex.
Some studies say increased sportsfishing pressure, storm water runoff and other byproducts of Mat-Su population growth and development are ruining salmon habitat, and voracious pike also are taking a toll.
Of the three legislative items, the task force seems to have the best chance of passing this session.
Millions of salmon return from the ocean to Cook Inlet streams each summer to spawn, and demand for the fish is intense. That's because more than half the state's population is clustered around the Inlet.
Commercial gillnetters, guides who take tourists on sportfishing trips, dipnetters and other factions long have jockeyed for advantage in Cook Inlet's perpetual fish fight.
In the middle are the managers – the Board of Fisheries and the state Department of Fish and Game. Their job is to first protect the long-term health of the stocks, and then to divide the available fish among various users.
The task force resolutions themselves are loaded with fighting words, declaring that Cook Inlet sport and dipnet fisheries "far exceed" the value of commercial harvests, and that the board and department are failing their duty.
Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, said Mat-Su residents have lost confidence in the managers.
"Our people feel like they've been abandoned by the Board of Fisheries," said Huggins, who chairs the Senate Resources Committee.
The task force could bring out new information on how to help returns to northern streams, where the fishing is becoming poor, he said.
Sen. Tom Wagoner, R-Kenai, objected Sunday to an attempt by Huggins to bring the task force resolution directly to the Senate floor for a vote.
Wagoner said the resolution hadn't received a public airing in any committee. He also suggested that commercial gillnetters aren't the problem with Mat-Su salmon returns, and that legislators who might serve on a task force have no business trying to do a job best left to the Board of Fisheries and the state's professional fisheries managers.
"None of us in this group are biologists," Wagoner told his colleagues.
For the resolution to come to a floor vote, it first will have to clear a gatekeeper: the Rules Committee chaired by Sen. Gary Stevens, R-Kodiak.
Stevens wouldn't say Sunday whether he'll allow the resolution out of his committee. But he did say he doesn't much care for the task force idea.
First, he said, lawmakers don't yet know how much task force meetings, travel and so forth will cost. Second, Stevens said he believes the Board of Fisheries, not the Legislature, should decide how to allocate the state's fish among users.
But Stoltze said his office has received more public feedback on salmon than any other issue this session, and the issue can't be ignored.
"You wouldn't see this much high-level activity if there wasn't a real problem," he said.
Find Wesley Loy online at adn.com/contact/wloy or call him in Juneau at 1-907-586-1531.