Soldotna Republican Sen. Peter Micciche is again moving to establish a buyback program for set-net permits in Cook Inlet.
The program would reduce the number of commercial set-net fishermen on the east side of the inlet. Proponents of the bill, like Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association Director Ken Coleman, say that’s to reduce pressure and create a more sustainable fishery in an area that’s been under stress for years.
“Our thought was if we could reduce our numbers, then those who would be left behind in a reduction scenario, assuming that some people would leave the fishing community, that those that are left behind would have a better chance for ongoing financial viability," he said.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game closed the east side Upper Cook Inlet set-net fishery this summer, citing weak king salmon runs.
The legislative session doesn’t begin until Jan. 19. But Micchiche “prefiled” the bill last week, SB 29, showing his intent to introduce it once the session starts.
He introduced a similar bill in 2019 but it stalled in the Senate early last year.
The program would be voluntary and fishermen would enter in a lottery. And permit holders first have to vote on whether they want such a program established. The bill says the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission would conduct an election among set-net permit holders in April 2022. If the buyback idea is approved, the commission would not buy back more than 200 permits — about half of the 440 permits in the fishery.
The program would buy each permit for $260,000. Coleman said a fisherman would likely get about $20,000 per permit today, if selling it on their own, from a high of $120,000.
But the bill doesn’t establish a mechanism for funding the buyback. Micciche said the money wouldn’t come from the state.
“I should make it clear that none of this is related to state funding," he said. "The state doesn’t have any money right now for this sort of thing. But they can’t even approach any entities for possibly pitching in on this program until they’re legally able to do it.”
Micciche said a large coalition of support is behind the bill, citing surveys of set-netters who expressed overwhelming approval. Opponents say they’re not sure reducing the number of permit holders will make the fishery viable.
Coleman said splitting the resource fewer ways will improve returns for the remaining fishermen. The bill would close waters to commercial fishing once permitters sell their holdings.
“I can tell you that when my neighbor doesn’t fish, I have a pretty significant bump in my catch, an increase in my catch because they weren’t in the water in front of me," Coleman said.
Micciche said the idea is that set-netters could move onto new sites or new work when they sell their permits.