Commentary

Alaska Fish Board bail out

As if the Alaska Legislature didn’t have enough on its plate with the state budget spinning into a $3.5 billion abyss, there’s now bad news out of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

Board member Bob Mumford of Anchorage, the compromise candidate who appeared to at least band-aid the wound opened by a nasty fight between Gov. Bill Walker and lawmakers, has announced he is resigning.

A commercial pilot and retired state Fish and Wildlife Protection trooper, Mumford Thursday sent an e-mail to Joint Boards director Glenn Haight saying a letter of resignation had been sent to Walker. Haight was asked to forward the Mumford e-mail to other board members.

“I wanted to get this out to you all quickly to prevent you from having to hear it from the rumor mill,” Mumford wrote. “My decision to resign really wasn’t too difficult for me. I weighed my need to be there for my family, with the cost of the time being away on the board. My family obligations won out.”

Serving on the Fish Board is a time-consuming and sometimes contentious job for which there is no pay, although board members do get state per diem when meeting in cities away from their home. Mumford, who could not be immediately reached for comment, did tell Haight he will stay until March 14, meaning he can fill the board’s seventh seat for two more meetings.

Fish war!

The seventh seat became the hot seat last year after former Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone, a sport fisherman, resigned from the board, and Walker decided to tilt the balance of the board to commercial fishermen by naming Roland Maw from Kasilof to fill the seat.

Maw was the long-time director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA), the most powerful commercial fishing group in the Anchorage region. He claimed to have resigned from that post and quit commercial fishing in order to take the position on the board, but there were questions about the truth of those claims.

The questions went away when Maw’s credibility vaporized. He resigned his board seat, though he did not say why at the time, when both Montana and Alaska officials began investigating his claims to be a resident of both states. Montana later convicted Maw of illegally claiming residency there in order to save money on the purchase of hunting and fishing licenses. The Montana charges were a misdemeanor.

Worse was to come in Alaska. Maw now faces felony charges for illegally claiming to be a resident of Alaska in order to collect Permanent Fund Dividends. He has yet to enter a plea to those charges and remains innocent until proven guilty.

After Maw’s resignation, Walker nominated Kenai Peninsula resident Robert Ruffner, a Soldotna-based conservation activist to the board, but he got caught in the Maw fall-out. Sport fishing interests in the Anchorage, Matanuska-Susitna valley and Fairbanks areas were by then so suspicious of Walker’s intentions for management of Cook Inlet salmon that the Legislature refused to confirm Ruffner.

Cook Inlet is the choke point for salmon heading for the hundreds of streams on the Kenai and in the Mat-Su. Fishermen go  to battle for salmon there as documented in the old National Geographic reality-TV show “Alaska Fish Wars.”  How many salmon commercial fishermen catch in the Inlet has a direct affect on how many salmon reach those streams, and thus how good the salmon fishing.

Given that most of the road-accessible salmon streams in Alaska are on the Kenai or in the Mat-Su, there are a lot of anglers watching what happens in the Inlet and telling their legislators to make sure the system set up to allocate salmon lets enough escape commercial nets to meet both spawning needs and angling desires.

Walker finally bowed to that political reality with the appoint of Mumford.

Not done yet

But the governor has made it clear he continues to back commercial interests over sport interests in the Inlet. He happily posed for photos with smiling UCIDA members, including Maw, last year, and he later directed the Fish Board to hold its next Cook Inlet meeting on the Kenai Peninsula.

The governor, however, lacks the legal authority to tell the board what to do. The Fish Board was set up as a quasi-independent authority. The governor recommends appointees; the Legislature votes them up or down; and those confirmed to the board then decide what the board does.

Walker’s attempts to push the board to meet on the Kenai for the next discussion of Cook Inlet attracted more controversy. The board eventually settled on Anchorage as the meeting place, but is rumored to have been very close to bowing to the wishes of the governor before a Kenai commercial fisherman made a scene during a pubic discussion of the meeting place and had to be escorted from the hearing room.

“I’m from Kodiak, and I can take a lot, but I don’t want to be disrupted as I make my comments,” board members Sue Jeffrey, a commercial fishermen, said after a crowd quieted down following that incident. The board subsequently voted 5-2 to keep its Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage in February 2017.

But that meeting is a year away. There’s no telling what could happen between now and then, depending on who Walker names to the board. Along with Mumford’s unexpected departure, Tom Kluberton’s term on the board is expiring at the end of June and the Talkeetna lodge owner says he’s had enough. He told Walker he isn’t interested in being reappointed.

Both his seat and Mumford’s have long been considered “sport fish” seats, but Alaska governors are not bound by tradition. They can appoint anyone they want, although the Legislature has the final say on who ends up serving on the board.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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