Cook Inlet Task Force Releases Draft Report

Rep Johnson’s office released a copy of a draft report prepared by a volunteer from the Cook Inlet Task Force.  Bob Tkacz has given SEAFA permission to reprint his article from the Laws of the SEAS published  last night.

The full report and other Cook Inlet Task Force materials are available at: http://www.housemajority.org/coms/jcis/jcis_background.php

SALMON TASK FORCE REPORT

QUESTIONS MANAGMENT LEGALITY

Current Cook Inlet salmon management and allocations may be unconstitutional according to the draft Joint Cook

Inlet Salmon Task Force released to other lawmakers by the panel chairman, Sept. 29.Ostensibly written by

Rep. Craig Johnson (R-Anch.), the report compares the Cook Inlet commercial fishingfleet to pre-statehood fish trap operators and suggests the Board of Fisheries has no standards for its allocation decisions. “It’s difficult to envision what criteria the Alaska Board of Fisheries applies in making those allocations,” Johnson declares on Page 34 of what he said three weeks earlier would be a “fair and balanced” report. The Fish Board was never scheduled to testify during the panel’s four 2008 hearings where public or invited testimony was taken, but the draft report is replete with selective and questionable use of statistical and other data attacking its decisions during its 2008 session on Cook Inlet salmon proposals and Department of Fish & Game management since then.

In a section titled “Analysis of the Fairness and Constitutionality of Current Cook Inlet Allocations,” Johnson wrote, “It’s clear from both the language of the (Alaska) Constitution and from the historical context, that the framers intended allocations of state fishery resources to benefit Alaskans in the broadest sense possible.”  A page later he observes, “Analyzing current allocations of Upper Cook Inlet salmon it appears that important lessons of the past may not have been heeded, nor constitutional mandates followed.” Johnson’s measure of the lack of fair allocations is the repeatedly noted statistic that “82% of the total Upper Cook Inlet salmon harvest is allocated to less than 1% of the region’s population — those who hold commercial fishing permits.” Comparing some 2,667 commercial permit holders to the 134,415 Cook Inlet resident sport license holders and 20,000 personal use permit holders he counts as 150,000 “individuals,” Johnson writes that 2.3% of “users” are allocated 82% of the resource.  “Based on that fact alone the current Upper Cook Inlet salmon allocation seems disproportionately biased in favor of a tiny segment of the resource’s users,” the report declares.At a Sept. 3 meeting of the Legislative Council, Johnson asked for $20,000 to hire the lobbyist-husband of his committee aide, Debra Higgins, to write the report. He said the document would be ready on the first day of the 2010. Johnson promoted Mark Higgins an attorney who was editor of his laws school review, as virtually the only person in Alaska with the time and ability to write the report. “I’m very comfortable that we will have a fair and balanced report … I just want to make sure it’s factual and fair to both sides,” Johnson said. Legislative leaders rejected Johnson’s funding request and

House Speaker Mike Chenault told Johnson to finish  his job. Johnson also claimed to have an opinion from the Legislative Ethics Committee approving his proposal to hire his staffer’s husband. He did not respond to repeated phone calls and emails requesting an interview and, to date has refused to provide a copy of the ethics opinion.

The report was originally due on the first day of this year’s legislative session and was supposed to contain task force recommendations to resolve salmon conservation and allocation disputes in Cook Inlet, according to SCR 21, the  resolution passed in 2008 that created the task force. Sen. Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla), the sponsor of SCR 21, a task force member and consistent critic of the Cook  Inlet commercial fishing fleet also refused to respond to an interview request. An aide to Huggins said he was not available for a telephone interview because he was “out of town.” Johnson’s office indicated by email last week that he would release a draft unedited version of the report. The 96-page document he release contains no index or table of contents and amounts to a legalistic brief in favor of massive reallocation of Cook Inlet sockeye.

NO RECOMMENDATIONS INTENDED

At the last meeting of the task force Jan. 29 Johnson said “It is not my intention to provide recommendations from the committee. I don’t think we have time to do that.” He invited task force members to offer individual recommendations but none ever did. It is not clear whether any other members of the task force saw the draft report before it was released or to what extent they agree with its conclusions. At the Sept. 3 meeting Johnson declared, “We are basically going to be boiling down the testimony from the department and user groups. There will not be editorial comment involved.”

Yet the report, in the schizophrenic style of right wing cable TV ranter Glenn Beck, is full of pro-sport fishing recommendations. On Page 5 it declares, “What this report does not do — and should not do — is draw firm conclusions on many of the issues. To do so would be inappropriate.”

‘REASONABLE CONCLUSIONS SUPPORTED’

Five lines later Johnson continues, “Statements made in this report summarize the Task Force’s examination of those issues, and draws reasonable conclusions where supported by verifiable, objective data.” Johnson devotes several pages to criticisms of Department of Fish & Game management that are contained in a2007 assessment of Cook Inlet salmon management prepared by a third-party auditor for the Marine Stewardship Council. Headquartered in London the group certifies that fisheries are managed sustainably, based on United Nations standards. Alaska’s salmon fishery has been certified by the MSC since 2000. The MSC report was not reviewed at any task force meeting and it is unlikely most panel members have read it to date. The report was discussed only briefly at an Oct. 9, 2008 task force meeting where Rep. Bill Stoltze (R-Chugiak) suggested groups he did not identify were “trying to kill the (MSC) messenger” because the organization “had a lot of concerns about the sustainable management of Upper Cook Inlet.”

The agenda for that hearing included only presentations by the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute and the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. Following the session ASMI Executive Dir. Ray Riutta said Stoltze’s claim  regarding MSC were unexpected. “I haven’t heard MSC say anything about the Upper Cook Inlet or any other fishery in Alaska not being sustainable. I was surprised by that statement,” Riutta said. Brad Ack, then director of the MSC program in the Americas, also said Stoltze was mistaken. “The MSC does not have any concerns” about sustainable salmon management in Cook Inlet, Ack said following the October meeting. He said stakeholders, such as Stoltze’s sport fishing and lodge owner constituents, may have complained about the state’s salmon management in comments to the MSC during the annual reviews required under the five-year certification. In a tactic used throughout the task force report Johnson devotes extensive verbiage to a dire concerns relating to commercial harvesting, then briefly suggest they may not be true and should be investigated.

On Page 21 of the report Johnson quotes the MSC reviewer’s statement: “Of particular concern to the reviewers has been a prevailing belief in the management system that fisheries cannot pose a significant risk to salmon sustainability where habitats are intact. Until this belief has been thoroughly vetted documented and published in the scientific literature, this review must continue to treat this view as an untested hypothesis.” Johnson doesn’t mention that the Alaska salmon fishery was fully recertified by the MSC in 2008, but declares, “Whether or not those statements fairly characterize ADF&G policies, the report’s conclusion that based on MSC standards Susitna sockeye are a “depleted stock” should be cause for concern by state policy makers and fishery managers.”

In a section titled

“Upper Cook Inlet Salmon Allocation Summary,” Johnson writes on Page 50, “Another consideration in Upper Cook Inlet salmon allocation is the extent to which aggressive prosecution of the Upper Cook Inlet commercial sockeye salmon fishery may be contributing to the sharp declines in Northern District Susitna sockeye salmon stocks, and thereby threatening the continued sustainability of those fisheries.”

He says the issue needs more investigation and that the task force “could not make any determination on that issue based on the limited time and ADF&G data available.” A few lines later he writes “To the extend Upper Cook Inlet salmon management practices that favor commercial fisheries threaten the sustainability of Northern District salmon stocks the practice must be changed. “Johnson repeatedly blames his failure to meet deadlines or to complete the charges imposed in SCR 21 on the lack of funding and time for deliberations by task force members. He does not mention that he opposed an amendment during House floor debate of the resolution offered by Speaker Chenault to set the report deadline at December 2009. Johnson also rejected warnings that from Chenault, among others, that the project could not be completed without dedicated legislative staff or a budget to hire outside help. Johnson writes that “major new studies” on the economic impact of sport and commercial fishing were only completed at the end of December 2008, inferring that the information was not expected. He does not mention that the task force was well aware that the sport fishing value report, begun in 2007, had always been slated for publication in December 2008 and was completed on schedule.

By contrast, Johnson never published a work plan for the task force or any long-term schedule of meetings or subjects that would be addressed.  Johnson also seems to deny 50 years of successful state salmon management. “It became clear to Task Force members that on many Cook Inlet salmon fisheries management issues there is insufficient scientific data on which to base definitive conclusions,” he writes on Page 5 of the report. He also calls for “immediate action” and more information regarding Susitna Valley sockeye followed by the statement, “The sheer complexity of most allocative or management issues involving Cook Inlet salmon fisheries preclude the Task Force from offering the Legislature definitive answers to many of the issues raised in SCR 21.” Johnson later proposes a wholesale reallocation of salmon to sport and personal use harvesters suggesting a 50% shift to sport anglers would be economically justifiable.

ALASKA SPORT FISHING ‘BRAND’ UNMATCHED

In a section headed, “What the New Upper Cook Inlet Numbers Tell Us,” Page 67, Johnson draws a variety of  conclusions based on the two reports the task force didn’t have time to analyze. The second was titled “The SeafoodIndustry in Alaska’s Economy,”  written by the consulting group Northern Economics for the Marine Conservation Alliance. Drawing variously from the two reports Johnson says the “economic contribution” to Alaska from the Upper Cook Inlet sport fishery is $630 million while the comparable first wholesale value of the commercial harvest is only $30.7 million. Johnson raises the prospect that commercial fishing in Cook Inlet may be headed for extinction while the sport fishing industry there has a world monopoly on the wild salmon fishing experience. “The radically divergent economic trends of the two segments of the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery during the past 15 years demonstrate that the future demand and value of one ‘use’ is decreasing, or is at best stagnant and likely to remain so,” he suggests.He writes on Page 70 that the “Alaska sport fishing brand” can’t be matched “anywhere.” On Page 71 he observes, ” In contrast the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishing industry has no dominant position for its product in the world market and no ability to gain one.” Apparently unaware that the Chilean farmed salmon industry collapsed earlier this year because of rampant diseases among its pen-raised fish, Johnson says, “dynamic and irreversible changes in the global salmon product marketplace” are also responsible for decline of the value of Cook Inlet wild salmon. Referring to a 2004 study he writes, “The introduction of large quantities of farmed fish, particularly farmed coho from Chile,  has to a great extent displaced Alaskan wild salmon in the critical Japanese frozen salmon market.”

BLEAK PROGNOSIS FOR COOK INLET FLEET

“From a basic supply and demand standpoint therefore the long term economic prognosis does not look good for the Upper Cook Inlet commercial salmon fishery,” he adds. Johns does acknowledge a certain need to maintain a Cook Inlet commercial fleet. “To the extent commercial fishing is necessary to guarantee the sustainability of Cook Inlet salmon runs (to prevent overescapement) or important maximizing total economic gains from the fishery the continued viability of the commercial sector would have to be ensured,” he writes. However he also suggests an increase in personal use harvesting could further reduce the need for commercial vessels.

Johnson also suggests the economic gain from expanded sport fishing overwhelms any loss to commercial harvesters. “As an example even a reallocation as large as 50% of commercial harvest could be offset with an increase of only 8.5% in nonresident sportfish spending.”

Laws for the SEA is written and published by Bob Tkacz at Juneau, Alaska. All rights reserved. ©Copyright 2009 Robert P. Tkacz.

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