Just when you think politics can’t get any stranger in Alaska, they get stranger.
Gov. Bill Walker, who last year tried to stack the Alaska Board of Fisheries with commercial fishermen, on Tuesday named three new appointees to the seven-member board, and there wasn’t a commercial fisherman among them.
Not only that, Walker eliminated from the board any representation for Bristol Bay, home to one of the largest and most valuable commercial salmon fisheries in the world, and reduced the number of commercial fishing limited-entry-permit holders on the board to three.
Fisheries observers were trying to figure out the meaning as Bristol Bay fishermen began to cry foul. There appeared to be little initial reaction from Cook Inlet fishermen, both sport and commercial, who went to war over an appointment last year.
This despite the fact one of the new appointees is vetoed, old appointee Robert Ruffner of Soldotna, who was tossed into a snake pit last year after Walker appointee Roland Maw, the former head of powerful Cook Inlet commercial fishing group, unexpectedly withdrew from his seat on the board. Maw did not say why, but it was eventually revealed that while still employed as a reporter at Alaska Dispatch News I caught Maw claiming residency in two states — Montana and Alaska.
Maw has since been convicted in Montana of illegally claiming resident hunting and fishing privileges, and now faces charges in Alaska of illegally obtaining permanent fund dividends and illegally claiming residency on commercial fishing permits. He this week pleaded not guilty to those charges.
In the wake of the Maw mess, sport fishing interests turned on Ruffner as a possible sleeper candidate for Inlet fishermen, and the Legislature, which must approve board appointments, voted him down. Most observers were this time expecting Ruffner to win confirmation.
The other two appointees were Al Cain, a retired Fish and Wildlife Trooper from Anchorage who sometimes worked with the board in the past, and Israel Payton who grew up in Skwentna, a remote community in the Susitna River drainage. A hunting and fishing guide for nearly 20 years, Peyton is the son of Tom Payton, who is something of the anti-Maw.
Where Maw wanted the Cook Inlet commercial drift net fleet to mop up every Susitna-bound salmon it could find, the elder Payton pretty much wanted the drift fleet sunk. It will be interesting to see how the dynamics of the new board members play out.
Equally interested will be the response from Bristol Bay, where some appear angry. The Bristol Bay board member who Ruffner replaces was Frederick “Fritz” Johnson, a respected resident of Dillingham, the founder of the Bristol Bay Times and a commercial fisherman who just happened to get busted for fishing during a closed period last summer.
It was not a big deal; that sort of violation is almost common in the Alaska commercial fishing business. No one in Dillingham seemed shocked. They had a much stronger reaction to Johnson’s removal.
“My administration is in the process of forming an advisory group to the governor to determine what improvements can be made to the Board of Fish, and I hope to recruit Mr. Johnson to be a part of that group,” he said in a prepared statement.