Supreme Court tosses out setnet ban petition

A ballot measure to ban setnet fishing in Juneau and Cook Inlet violates the Alaska Constitution and will not appear before voters next year, the Alaska Supreme Court ruled Friday.

In a decision announced on the last day of the year, the Supreme Court said the initiative would violate article XI, section 7 of the constitution. That section states that a referendum petition “shall not be applied … to appropriations.”

Because setnet fishing sites catch salmon almost exclusively, the court determined that banning them would amount to appropriating salmon to other fishermen.

The court decision ends a three-year legal battle that began when the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance, a Kenai-based sportfishing group, sought the ban as a way to restrict setnet operations in Upper Cook Inlet. There are more than 2,200 setnet sites in Alaska; 735 are in Cook Inlet.

As proposed, the ban would apply only to the state’s nonsubsistence areas, which include territory around Fairbanks, Anchorage, Valdez, Juneau and Ketchikan.

In January 2014, before AFCA began its signature-gathering effort for the petition, then-Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell declined to certify the effort, saying it violated the Alaska Constitution.

“The Department of Law reviewed the application for compliance,” Treadwell wrote. “The department recommends that I decline to certify this initiative application on the grounds that (it) makes a prohibited appropriation under Article XI, section 7 of the Alaska Constitution.”

AFCA appealed the lieutenant governor’s decision to the state court system, and in July 2014 an Anchorage superior court decision overturned Treadwell’s rejection.

AFCA duly collected enough signatures to put the ban on the ballot, completing its application by June 2015.

Even as the state certified the petition as correct, it appealed the superior court decision to the Alaska Supreme Court, which heard oral arguments three weeks after the ballot measure was certified on Aug. 4.

In an emailed statement Friday, AFCA president Joe Connors said the organization is “disappointed with the court’s decision to deny voters an opportunity to weigh in on the method and means for harvesting fish.”

Had the Supreme Court upheld the AFCA petition, it would have appeared on the August 2016 primary election ballot.

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