JUNEAU--Members of a state Senate committee balked on Monday at moving forward a proposal by Sen. Ralph Seekins, R-Fairbanks, to make personal consumption the highest use of fish and game, saying they were unsure of the ramifications of the bill.
Senate Resources Committee members expressed concern that Seekins' proposal to make consumption of fish and game a "fundamental right" of Alaskans could lead to widespread legal challenges to any restrictions to hunting and fishing.
"The problem for us here in Resources that we should address is: Is this likely to make it difficult for the management of the resources?" asked Sen. Fred Dyson, R-Eagle River.
Introduced by Seekins last month, Senate Bill 318 sets a policy for the state that the consumptive use of wild fish and game by Alaska residents for their sustenance--defined as consumption for food, nourishment or survival--is a "very important and fundamental right" when considering the management and allocation of those resources.
Seekins, a longtime proponent of consumptive use of fish and game, argues that personal use should trump other uses, such as wildlife viewing or commercial fishing, when there is a conflict.
"(It) may be that there are times when some uses compete against each other," he said Monday. "When that happens, it should not be at the expense of those people who depend on the resource for sustenance."
Seekins' bill has seen both support and scorn from members of the public. But what seemed to most worry members of the committee was testimony from state departments.
Wayne Regelin of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game expressed concern about legal challenges to limitations on hunting, arguing that procedures like bag limits, closed seasons and even licensing could all come under attack if fish and game are deemed a fundamental right.
On Monday, Assistant Attorney General Lance Nelson echoed Regelin's statements.
"Without more direction, it would appear that this bill may create controversy and unnecessarily encourage litigation," he said.
Nelson said the language of the bill could lead to a situation in which the state could only restrict any taking of fish or game if there was a "compelling state interest" in doing so. He said rules dictating fair chase hunting techniques, bans on same day airborne hunting, restrictions on hunting from or with different motorized vehicles, bag limits and season restrictions, and equipment restrictions could all be at risk under Seekins' proposal.
"I think it's going to make management decisions much more difficult and the flexibility's going to be gone in a lot of ways," he said.
Seekins argued that Nelson's and Regelin's concerns were exaggerated, noting that the state freely restricts other areas that are considered fundamental rights.
"Voting is a fundamental right, is it not, and yet we have rules and regulations under which it must be practiced," he said.
And he argues that a strict requirement for personal use priority is important to have in state law.
"It should be difficult for the Board of Fisheries to allocate around that," he said.
Seekins, a member of the Resources Committee, proposed moving his bill on to the next committee. But committee members hesitated to move the bill without hearing more testimony about legal concerns as well as what kind of impact the bill would have on the actual allocation of resources among different user groups.
"I'd suggest that the motion at this point is premature," said Sen. Kim Elton, D-Juneau.
Seekins agreed to withdraw his motion to move the bill after both Elton and Dyson expressed concern about it. He and committee members agreed to bring it back to the committee with more testimony from the state, as well as more information about some of the specific impacts the bill would have on fish and wildlife allocation.
Reporter Tom Moran can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (907) 463-4893.