Fishing guides weigh in on licensing, logbook programs

A bill to reinstate the fishing guide licensing and logbook programs in Alaska will come before the Senate Finance Committee in January. But before lawmakers have their say, fishing guides get to weigh in during a series of public meetings held around the state this month and next.

Not much would change with the passage of House Bill 41, which would re-establish the fishing guide registration and logbook program in Alaska that sunsetted in 2014. The biggest change — increasing the fee structure $50 to $100 for guides and guide businesses — didn’t get much response at a public meeting in Soldotna on Tuesday, held by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to get feedback on the bill.

But guides did have comments to make on how the program works — or doesn’t — or could, at least, work better.

“So it’s difficult at times,” Andy Szczesny, owner of Alaska Fish and Float, said. “And believe it or not, we can make a mistake, and we could get a ticket, any one of us in this room that’s a guide.”

He and other guides at the meeting said the logging requirements are too cumbersome and the potential for fines too onerous.

Mel Erickson, of Alaska Gamefisher, said it can be difficult for guides to complete the forms how and when they’re supposed to.

“And then you’re out there in the rough water and you’ve got six people you’re dealing with and some of them are puking, and some of them are scared,” Erickson said. “And then you get in and you’re trying to deal with that and they just want off the boat right away and there might be some stuff you don’t have filled out yet.”

“Eventually, you’re going to get it filled out but sometimes the timing of it just doesn’t happen when it’s supposed to be done.”

To complicate matters, logbook requirements are different for saltwater versus freshwater guiding, and the consequences for error can vary, as well.

Five different agencies have authority to check logbooks. Citations issued by an Alaska officer would incur fines according to the state schedule, but if a federal agency issues a citation, it could through federal court in Anchorage. And if a citation is given in the Kenai River Special Management Area, the guide could be on the hook for further consequences from the state Parks department.

As a result, some guides might throw away their logbook entry sheets and receipts, and Fish and Game would lose out on that information.

“All he has to do is pull out those white copies and throw them away,” Szczesny said. “And you have to realize that’s happened, a lot, because they’re late.”

“That shouldn’t be a thing that you want happening if you want the information to be good.”

Tom Taube, deputy director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fish, said Fish and Game uses the logbook data for a variety of purposes, including in reporting to the Board of Fish and in helping inform preseason and in-season management decisions.

Taube said the program was instituted to start with as a way to establish a good reputation for Alaska guides.

“It also protects the industry from unprofessional and unethical guides that could damage the reputation of the Alaska sportfish guide industry,” Taube said. “We’re trying to market a high-quality guiding program here in the state, and we feel these things, the guide licenses and log program, helps that.”

As for the logbooks, data is useful in fisheries management, and collecting it at the state level saves guides from having to deal with federal agencies that also want the data.

Sgt. Ken Acton, a division of wildlife trooper based in Soldotna, said causing guides grief over logbooks is not his department’s goal.

“I don’t want my troopers to take a lot of your time,” Acton said. “You’re out there making a living doing this. We want to just make this quick and go, and we’re out of there.”

Acton said his department prefers a common-sense approach emphasizing education over intimidation in enforcing logbook requirements. But Acton conceded that he couldn’t speak for other enforcement agencies.

Joe Connors, owner of Big Sky Charter and Fish Camp in Sterling, pointed out that Fish and Game and troopers were the only agencies represented at the meeting.

“That just bothers me because you’re hearing our concerns and there’s some value to that,” Connors said. “Now, you have to assign whether it’s good it’s bad, whatever — but you’re hearing it. They’re missing that opportunity, yet they’re the same people that we’re going to have to interface with out there. And in our case, here, two-thirds of the agencies that I deal with aren’t present to hear this.”

HB 41 is scheduled to come before the Senate Finance Committee when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

Taube said that comments from the Soldotna meeting, and other public meetings held around the state, will be provided to lawmakers, with meeting summaries posted on the department’s website.