Haines borough seeks to quell fish flap

The borough assembly of Haines, Alaska is calling on a state legislator to withdraw a bill that would prevent Yukoners from purchasing fishing licences and chinook salmon tags at the same price as Alaskans.

The borough assembly of Haines, Alaska is calling on a state legislator to withdraw a bill that would prevent Yukoners from purchasing fishing licences and chinook salmon tags at the same price as Alaskans.

The draft law was prompted by complaints from Haines residents and from the Haines-based Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee about the summer influx of Yukon fishing enthusiasts in the Chilkat valley.

Since 2005, Yukoners have been eligible to purchase Alaskan licences instead of the more pricey non-resident licences under a reciprocal arrangement. The change was made as part of a broader effort at Yukon-Alaska participation on everything from railroads to tourism to energy projects.

In November 2013 the Upper Lynn Canal Fish and Game Advisory Committee sent a letter to the Alaskan Department of Fish and Game requesting that Yukon fishers pay full fare. The letter argued that the arrangement was costing the state government between $250,000 and $300,000 in lost revenue annually, and that it had been set up when the Yukon’s economy was suffering and the Canadian dollar was well below par.

“In 2013 the Yukon is not experiencing a stifled economy,” wrote committee chairperson Tim McDonough, “the population is increasing, and the Canadian dollar is roughly equivalent to the U.S. dollar.”

Fish and Game Commissioner Cora Campbell denied the request. She noted in her reply that the department’s own estimates show an annual revenue loss of roughly $50,000, and that it may be outweighed by the economic benefits of Yukoners visiting Haines and elsewhere. “Repealing this regulation may have a negative economic impact on local communities,” she wrote.

But then Rep. Jonathan Kreiss-Tomkins, of Sitka, sponsored House Bill 368, which would circumvent the commissioner to eliminate the regulation that allows Yukoners to purchase Alaskan resident licences and tags. He did so, he told the Chilkat Valley News, in response to concerns raised by committee chair McDonough and several Haines residents.

One of those residents was Marlena Saupe, who detailed her concerns in a three-page letter to Kreiss-Tomkins. She argued that with a renewed Yukon economy and a strengthened Canadian dollar, the arrangement was no longer necessary. And she suggested that the presence of Yukoners was putting a strain on the fishery. “Every day there are Yukon people fishing,” she wrote. “There is no room for locals to fish.”

She also asserted that the Yukoners who fish in Haines have been abusing a loophole in the bag limit regulations. “They bring generators to run their freezers to freeze their catch,” she wrote. “They limit out, clean their fish, then freeze it. They go back out same day and fish some more. Under Alaska law, once a fish has been processed and frozen, it is no longer considered your limit for the day. I’ve seen them fill their freezers.”

The latest move came as a surprise to the Haines Convention and Visitors Bureau. “I think we were all pretty shocked to see this bill come up,” said Tanya Carlson, director of the bureau, noting that her organization had sent a thank-you note to the commissioner after she denied the committee’s initial request. “Our Yukon neighbours, everybody comes down here to fish. (Changing the licences) would be a detriment, definitely. We’re not in support of it.”

Carlson doesn’t think the change enjoys widespread support in Haines, nor does she believe that misbehaving Yukoners are a widespread problem. “There might be one or two,” she acknowledged, “but I would love to see the proof. For the most part I think everybody that comes down fishes responsibly. I honestly don’t think that it’s been an issue.”

Last night, Haines Mayor Stephanie Scott and the borough assembly weighed in on the matter. After a debate that included input from residents, the assembly unanimously passed a motion resolving to send Rep. Kreiss-Tomkins a letter thanking him for his attention to the issue and requesting that he withdraw House Bill 368.

Rich Chapell, the Haines area manager for the sport fish division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, doesn’t think Yukoners are putting Haines subsistence fishing at risk. “We have a sustainable harvest,” he said. “We set sport fishing bag and possession limits according to the abundance of the various species, and if there’s a conservation problem we’ll scale back the bag limits. We wouldn’t take action on somebody’s fishing licence. That’s how we manage fisheries, is by adjusting bag limits.”

Chapell also clarified that the freezer “loophole” is no such thing: freezing their day’s catch after reaching the daily limit does not authorize anyone to limit-out again on the same day, and fresh or frozen, all fish count towards an overall possession limit.

He acknowledged that there may be people who violate the daily bag and overall possession limits. “That’s possible,” he said, “but that’s an enforcement problem. We have wildlife enforcement officers that keep an eye out for that kind of activity by Alaska residents and Yukon residents alike.”

Gord Zealand, the executive director of the Yukon Fish and Game Association, agrees. “Changing the licences, does that change the enforcement issues? Whether you pay $25 or $50 or $100, if there’s an issue with enforcement, then deal with it,” he said.

“As an organization we’re adamantly opposed to individuals exceeding their limits or breaking the law. And we would do whatever we could to help out in this area. But at the same time, if the problem is over-limits, then by changing the cost of the licence, is that going to look after the problem?”

Zealand questioned what the Haines residents who have raised the issue are truly objecting to. “Is the issue that I get a break because I buy an Alaska fishing licence, or is the issue the fact that some people are exceeding their limits?”

He worries that if the regulation is changed, it will make it more difficult for young families, older Yukoners, or other lower-income Yukoners to fish – without affecting the alleged limit-violators.