Contentious dipnet salmon fisheries and a dispute over a boat ramp on the Kenai Peninsula’s Kasilof River appear to have cost the director of the Alaska Division of Parks and Outdoor Recreation his job.
Welcome to the messy world of fishery politics in the 49th state.
A week ago came the news that parks director Ben Ellis had been summarily fired. At the time, the Department of Natural Resources issued a vague statement saying that “Thursday, February 2nd, was Ben Ellis’ last day serving as director of the Division of State Parks & Outdoor Recreation.
“We at DNR are very grateful to Ben for his six years of service as director and his advocacy for Alaska’s state parks. Mr. Ellis has been a fine public servant and we wish him well in all of his future endeavors.”
A politically active Kasilof resident is now saying Ellis got the ax because of his support for a boat ramp that some feared might allow salmon dipnetters more access to the Kasilof. Many Kasilof residents don’t want more dipnetters or a ramp, and they appear to have won a major victory.
“The division is putting this project on hold while it takes a comprehensive look at the multiple Kasilof River recreation access projects that are in various stages of development,” the state parks website says. “We will be reaching out to stakeholders and the community before we make any further decisions.”
Acting parks director Matt Wedeking, who said he is not in the running for the job as the new parks director, had no idea when further decisions might be made.
Even before Ellis’s dismissal, there were rumblings that the man appointed by former Gov. Sean Parnell six years ago might have alienated the administration of new Gov. Bill Walker either by questioning a Kachemak Bay salmon-rearing permit for the Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association, one of a variety of Alaska commercial fishing groups engaged in large-scale salmon ranching, or trying to improve public access to the Kasilof.
Ellis, in an interview this week, said he wasn’t sure what led to his firing, but admitted he had generated some hard feelings on the Kenai when he approved a Kasilof boat ramp instead of a cable “retrieval system” some local residents wanted installed.
The ramp versus rope dispute has a long history.
Parks five years ago received $1.6 million from the Alaska Legislature to purchase a site for a driftboat takeout on the Kasilof, a river popular with drift-fishing king salmon anglers. Two years ago, the agency obtained a site once known as Trujillo’s Landing on the river’s north bank. Trujillo’s ran a private operation that hooked a cable to driftboats to yank them out of the river.
The state shut that operation down last year.
“The previous retrieval site was basically a cable system that was attached to a vehicle and boat, and the boat was towed up the bank,” Kenai parks superintendent Jack Blackwell told the Peninsula Clarion at the time. “The state has some concerns, safety concerns, about that system that was used.”
After the closure, parks began a year-long process to come up with a plan for the site. Kasilof residents lobbied strongly for something similar to that run by Trujillo’s.
“It was supposed to be a boat retrieval,” Kasilof community activist George Pierce said Friday by phone from his Kasilof home, but instead of opting for a new cable system, parks – under Ellis’s guidance – began planning for a boat ramp.
Local residents saw that as a big problem.
“It was no doubt going to be overrun with dipnetters,” said Pierce, who started a local petition drive opposing the park plan for that and other reasons, including the amount of public parking to be made available and plans to gate the park during the off-season which would limit local use of the area.
Fifteen hundred area residents eventually signed the petition, he said, but parks largely ignored it.
“It’s people that don’t live here who want this (ramp)” he said. “I think we should have a say so of what goes on in our backyard…Since I moved up here 28 years ago, too much has changed. It used to be you could go anywhere. Now you’re restricted to walkways.”
The latter is a reference to what are called “elevated light penetrating platforms” that have gone up all along the nearby Kenai River to protect streambank habitat for immature salmon while allowing people to use the river. Praised by habitat biologists, the bank structures are less than universally popular with Kenai residents who don’t like being told where they can and cannot fish, and who believe the metal walkways only encourage the annual summer invasion of hundreds of thousands of anglers from the Lower 48 and the Anchorage Metropolitan Area, home to about half of the state’s population.
The people issue is at the heart of the Kasilof dispute and many others on the Kenai. Commercial fishing interests, in particular, feel threatened by urban Alaskans who want a share of the salmon resource.
Alaska’s many divides
Too many people from the city and “the Valley,” a reference to the Matanuksa-Susitna valley, are showing up on the Kasilof already, Pierce said.
“It’s people that doesn’t live here,” who are a problem, he said. They catch too many fish and leave too much litter.
“I don’t go up to Anchorage and leave my garbage there,” he said.
Ellis said parks was well aware of the feelings of Kasilof residents toward other Alaskans and planned to restrict use of the boat ramp during the dipnet season to discourage dipnetters. The cable system, he said, just didn’t make sense.
“The ramp is cheaper. The maintenance cost is cheaper. And the liability to the state is much lower,” Ellis said. “We had a guy killed down there seven years ago” when a cable broke, snapped back and struck him in the chest.
With a cable system, he said, the state would likely need to hire someone to operate it, which would make it more costly but safer. Even then, though, there are risks. It’s hard to judge the strength of the random eyebolt on any boat being pulled from the river.
An eyebolt pulling loose under tension could present as much snap-back danger as a cable failure. Ellis said it just didn’t seem a good idea. He isn’t sure, however, if the boat-ramp decision cost him his job and added that it doesn’t really matter.
Commissioner of Natural Resources Andy Mack told him the Walker administration “wanted to go in a different direction,” and Ellis said he was fine with that.
The director’s job is what the state of Alaska calls an “exempt position,” meaning it is an upper-management role exempt from the job protections given most public employees. The governor can hire and fire exempt employees at will.
“He doesn’t need an excuse,” said Ellis, but the Walker administration apparently did have a reason for making the change, Pierce said.
“My understanding is that Gov. Walker told him to do it our way,” Pierce said, and when that didn’t happen, Ellis was sent packing by Mack. Pierce applauded the outcome.
Mack was appointed by Walker last summer after issues with two previous DNR commissioners – Mark Myers and Marty Rutherford. Myers unexpectedly retired on March 1. Rutherford, a deputy commissioner named to replace him, quit not long after. Both were reported to be uncomfortable with Walker threatening to restrict Prudhoe Bay oil production to pressure oil producers to build a natural gas pipeline.
Exxon-Mobil was then spearheading a gasline development project that involved BP, Conoco-Phillips and the state. The state has since taken over the project.
At the time of Mack’s appointment, he was managing director of PT Capital, a private equity firm started by Alaska Dispatch News publisher Alice Rogoff, a good friend of Walker.
A DNR spokeswoman for Mack on Friday said he was traveling and could not be reached for comment.
Mack grew up in Soldotna, just north of Kasilof on the Sterling Highway. He is the nephew of the late Frank Mullen, a long time Cook Inlet commercial fishermen with a distaste for both dipnetters and anglers who he regularly accused of harming fishery resources by “dragging hooks through spawning beds.”
Mack in August told Petroleum News reporter Tim Bradner that he grew up wanting “to be a commercial fisherman.” He shares Walker’s strong ties to Kenai commercial fishing interests.
Walker appointed to the state Board of Fisheries Roland Maw, the one-time executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drifter’s Association, the Inlet’s most powerful fishing organization, and posed for photos with a smiling Maw and others from UCIDA even after Maw quit the fish board amidst an investigation into whether he’d ripped off the state’s Permanent Fund Dividend program.
Maw now faces multiple felony charges in relation to illegally filing for PFDs. He has engaged in all sorts of legal manoeuvering to try to avoid trial on those charges, but he is scheduled to go before a jury in April in Juneau.
The board on which he once served this week began meeting in Anchorage to discuss management of Cook Inlet salmon, including those popular Kasilof and Kenai rivers dipnet fisheries that provide food for tens of thousands of average Alaskans.
About 26,000 people reported dipnetting for salmon on the Kenai this year, but they did not do so well. Their catch of 259,000 red salmon was less than half the harvest of 538,000 five years earlier. The average catch of just shy of 10 fish per dipnetter was way below the harvest limit of 25 fish per head of household plus 10 for each family member, and only a less than the 12 fish possession limit allowed non-resident fishermen on the Kenai in late July.
The dipnet fishery is limited to Alaska residents only. It was established after the Board of Fisheries outlawed subsistence fishing on the Kenai. The subsistence fishery was done away with because state law provides a priority for subsistence harvests, and that priority conflicted with commercial and sport management of salmon in and around Cook Inlet.
In the wake of the bad dipnet season, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has asked the board to shrink the size of the dipnet fishery at the mouth of the Kenai, now the most popular Alaska dipnet stream. The stated reason for the change is bureaucratic convenience.
“To implement existing personal use dip net boundary regulations near the mouth of the Kenai River,” the proposal to the board says, “Alaska Department of Fish and Game (department) markers are placed on the shore line at the base of the north shore bluff below the end of Main Street, which is a short distance upstream of the Kenai River – No Name Creek confluence. Markers are frequently lost in tidal currents or removed by participants who fish above No Name Creek. Designating a natural/physical feature instead of a department marker will create a permanent marker to clarify the upstream boundary of the personal use dip net fishery.”
The dipnet fishery that occurs immediately upstream from No Name Creek takes places only at low tide. The areas is basically unfishable when the tide is in. Because the fishery operates within the riverbed in a non-spawning tidal area, it likley has the least environmental impact of any fishery on the Kenai River.
But Fish and Game lumped it in with a separate proposal to close a vegetated area far upstream near the Warren Ames bridge so as to suggest the No Name closure may be “negatively impacting the riparian habitat in the lower Kenai River.”
The area closure is one of a variety of proposals asking the board to restrict dipnetters.
Unwanted on the Kasilof, they apparently aren’t much more popular anywhere else even if one of the City of Kenai’s few money-making ventures – possibly it’s only money-making venture – is tied to charging dipnetters to park near the mouth of the Kenai.
Dipnetters sometimes wait in line there to get a parking place.
Pierce blamed the city’s profit motive for July chaos and congestion on the Kenai’s north beach. When the salmon are running thick, the scene is sometimes reminiscent of the chaos in a Fandango parking lot when a major, hit movie premiers.
Most of the fishermen seem to enjoy it, however, even if it doesn’t look pretty.
CORRECTION: A math error in this story was corrected on Feb. 25, 2017. The 2016 catch of about 10 fish per Kenai dipnetter was under-reported in the original version of the story as just over 8 fish per permit. That was correct but misleading; it was based on the 31,000 permits issued by the state but only 26,000 of those permits were fished. The revised story reflects the catch per permit for permit holders who fished.