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KRSA comments on proposed USFWS rule change

April 8th, 2016

Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) is a 501(c)(3) charitable non-profit dedicated to fishery conservation in Alaska. We actively participate in fish and wildlife management in Alaska, including the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the Alaska Board of Game, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, the International Pacific Halibut Commission, the Federal Subsistence Board and the Southcentral Regional Advisory Council.

These regulatory bodies for fish and wildlife management in Alaska have well defined public processes for the consideration of regulatory changes to policies, regulations, management plans, and other matters regarding fish and wildlife management in Alaska. Time, area, methods and means are the historical management tools utilized through these regulatory bodies. With regard to management authority of fish and wildlife in Alaska, that authority is vested to the State unless specifically designated by Congress, such as with subsistence through ANILCA or federal waters fisheries management through MSA.

Our concern with the proposed rule is that it sets the precedence for the USFWS to act independently of these established regulatory bodies to create regulations for time, area, methods and means for fishing and hunting activities on federal refuge lands. While the proposed rule is focused this time on wildlife prohibitions and excludes fisheries provisions, that does not mean that fisheries regulations would not be considered in the future through this regulatory approach. We call attention to the lack of clarity and intent on how, when and why this type of proposed rulemaking would have on fishing activities in Alaskan refuges.

Typically the fish and wildlife regulatory bodies rely on biological data, from which the time, area, methods and means regulations are evaluated and adjusted over the course of various meeting cycles. Most fish and wildlife management plans are area and or species specific, with minimum population levels or ranges used as management goals that are reviewable and adjustable. This is how conservation is built into the process; for example, minimum escapement levels are the conservation trigger in the salmon fisheries, just as minimum carrying capacity estimates are for wildlife.

One specific problem in the proposed rule is the addition of criteria without clear definition. Criteria such as the conservation of natural diversity, biological integrity, biological diversity, and environmental health are proposed to be added, but none have clear definition as to meaning and how they relate to traditional fishing and hunting management. 

What do the new criteria actually mean in terms of the evaluation of time, area, methods and means for fishing and hunting activities and regulations on Alaskan refuges? What now are the acceptable impacts of harvest through fishing and hunting when viewed through the lens of each new criteria? Will fishing and hunting on keystone species or apex predators be restricted in deference to the new criteria? For example, how does adding natural diversity as a criteria relate to a traditional management concept of carrying capacity for prey and or predators? How do fishing and hunting activities impact and interact with the concept of biological integrity? If fishing and hunting regulations are already predicated on minimum viable populations as conservation trigger points, how does one understand the concept of harvestable surplus as it relates to the new criteria? Yes the population of a species in a particular management unit may fluctuate through time from x to y, but what does that mean to the amounts that can be sustainably fished and hunted? 

There is no indication of how these additional criteria are going to be defined and measured, or how they interact with fishing and hunting activities on refuge lands. Do any of these proposed criteria rest on biological data, and if so, can the public review a conservation scorecard or sustainability matrix for natural diversity, or biological integrity, or biological diversity, or environmental health? What parameters define and measure each? How is a fish and wildlife regulatory body supposed to integrate these proposed criteria into their decision-making processes?

For example, is the trapping of beaver now good or bad under the lens of the new criteria? Beaver are a keystone species, capable of wholesale changes to the water dynamics of entire watersheds. Does some limited trapping of beaver impact the biological diversity or integrity within refuge boundaries? As some species benefit from beavers and some species do not, how is a regulatory body now supposed to objectively evaluate the harvestable surplus of beaver as it pertains conceptually to the conservation of natural diversity? Without clear definition, who arbitrates disagreement on these proposed criteria between the fish and wildlife regulatory bodies and the agency? The omission is very troublesome – open-ended criteria without definition or intended use is not supportable.

Under the existing fish and wildlife regulatory framework, regulations and management utilize biological data as the primary starting point. Traditionally, the concept of a minimum population level or a population range necessary for the conservation of a particular species is used so that a harvestable surplus may be calculated. Fishing and hunting regulations and management flow from the concept of conserving a minimum population level or range. Large investments in biological research (much of it paid by anglers and hunters through license and excise fees) are made for in-season and long-term population monitoring, and are conducted by both the state and federal government to get populations estimates for many species that are fished and hunted. In-season emergency closure or restriction authority is based on this concept of a minimum population target that, if not met, trigger emergency action.  

It is unclear how these as yet undefined and hence unmeasurable criteria will assist with setting a minimum level or population range of a species that is fished or hunted. We have an in-depth system in place for research and evaluation of population levels necessary for sustainable fishing and hunting activities on refuge lands. And when biological data is not robust, policies indicate that conservative management approaches for fishing and hunting are to be adopted. If a region has a harvestable surplus of a species that is fished or hunted, it is unclear how the proposed criteria will assist in the adoption and implementation of fishing and hunting regulations.

Blanket regulations that restrict or prohibit potential methods and means, such as those being proposed for hunting across all refuges in Alaska, do not seem to take into account that there are many different regions in this state. Alaska is a vast area with many fish and game management units. A conservation issue on one refuge may not be occurring in a different one. Each management subunit in the state has a unique set of parameters that are used to evaluate and set minimum sustainable populations levels and establish harvestable surpluses. That fidelity to local geography and circumstance should continue to be the basis of fish and game management and policy-making in Alaska.

With 16 national wildlife refuges in Alaska, the issues at Togiak are different from Tetlin, just as those at Yukon Flats are different from the Yukon Delta: all are refuges, but local circumstance dictates the necessities in differences for their respective fishing and hunting regulations. It should go without saying that there is a good reason as to why there are ten Regional Advisory Councils in the federal subsistence program in Alaska. One regulatory size does not fit all.

The proposed rule also seeks to change the timeframe of emergency and temporary closure authority. But it is not clear why the time to evaluate emergency and temporary closures or restrictions needs to be extended from 30 to 60 days (emergency) and from one to three years (temporary). Emergency and temporary closure or restriction authority is based on the concept of in-season management actions needed to be taken when there is an unforeseen change in circumstance. Extending such authority beyond one season or year is troubling. Three year closures or restrictions that bypass the traditional regulatory bodies will appear to be based less on biological consideration than on policy disagreement.  

One area we do support is the expansion of notice to add the use of the Internet, broadcast media, or other available methods, in addition to continuing to use the more traditional methods of newspapers, signs and radio. The more modes of communication the better.

A final thought: in these times of reduced budgets for state and federal agencies, we support more cooperation between state, federal, university, non-government organizations and the private sector in formulating strategic planning and prioritization for fish and wildlife research. As this information is the building block of sustainable management of our fish and wildlife populations, we strongly encourage all entities come together to jointly establish strategic plans for research and funding of this critical data, so that the land management agencies and regulatory bodies have access to the best information upon which to build sustainable management plans.  

Thank you for your time and consideration on these matters.

Sincerely,

Ricky Gease, Executive Director

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