With the fishing season beginning in the 49th state, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker has been holding private meetings to forge an agreement between commercial, sport and other fishing interests on how to manage salmon in Cook Inlet.
The reason why is unclear.
By law, the regulation of state fisheries falls solely under the jurisdiction of the Alaska Board of Fisheries. One of the first acts of the Alaska Legislature after Statehood in 1959 was to establish a Board of Fish and Game – later split into the separate boards for fish and wildlife management – to insulate resource decisions from backroom politicking.
“Under the Alaska Constitution, the Board of Fish and Game was founded in 1960 to provide for public discussion (of) the state’s fish and wildlife management,” according to a legislative history. “Public involvement is one of the most essential aspects of the board process.”
Alaska Outdoor Council executive director Rod Arno on Friday accused Walker of playing politics with Inlet fisheries in direct violation of the intent of the state’s founders. The AOC is the state’s largest fishing and hunting organization.
Were Walker’s secret dealings not enough, Arno added, what the governor and a state-paid facilitator are doing makes no sense given that Walker has no authority to alter fishing regulations. Even if Walker could broker a deal on management of Inlet salmon in secretive, closed-door meetings, Arno noted, the deal would need the approval of the seven-member Board of Fish.
The board members are appointed by the governor, but must be approved by the Legislature. The board is not scheduled to consider Cook Inlet salmon issues until the 2019-2020 session. The state votes on a new governor this fall.
Walker is running for re-election. Arno and others have speculated that what is really going on is an effort by the governor to craft something he can claim has brought peace between warring fishery factions in Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) in the hopes this could win him some votes.
But even if Walker could broker such a deal, which seems unlikely, Arno said, it would set a bad precedent.
“It gets right back down to the (fish and game) advisory committees,” he said. “They feel they’ve been disenfranchised.”
The state’s founders intended that more than 80 advisory committees spread across the vast expanse of Alaska would maintain a big say in how state fish and wildlife are managed.
“Local advisory committees and regional councils provide a local forum to…provide recommendations to the boards,” the legislative history recounts. “If the board chooses not to follow the recommendations of the local advisory committee, the board must inform the local advisory committee of its action and provide the reasons for not following the local advisory committee recommendations.”
The Fish Board itself has given less and less weight to the advisory committees over the years, and Walker has now cut them out all together to negotiate privately with representatives of various special interest groups.
A first-term independent, Walker was sworn into office in 2014 claiming he planned a more transparent government than Republican predecessor Sean Parnell. There has been little sign of that.
The governor’s press secretary did not return a phone call on Friday. His assistant press secretary was not answering the phone.
Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) has for decades been ground zero for Alaska fights over salmon allocation. The Inlet cuts into the heart of Alaska’s urban core. The waters of the Inlet lap at the beaches of Anchorage, the state’s largest city, and the rivers that feed into the Inlet drain the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, itself a part of the Anchorage Metropolitan Statistical Area home to more than half the state’s population.
Tens of thousands of anglers live in the area. Hundreds of tourism businesses depend on them and business from some of the more than 100,000 tourists who flock north to fish every year.
The Southcentral region is also home to 20,000-plus, personal-use dipnetters who trek to the Kenai and Kasilof rivers each summer to try to catch enough salmon to fill their freezers for the winter, a smattering of subsistence fishermen still dependent on salmon to feed themselves in remote corners of the area, and 1,305 commercial fishermen who’ve largely owned the Inlet fishery since Statehood.
With the latter group annually sweeping up about 75 percent of the salmon, fish wars are inevitable. Sport, dipnet and subsistence fishermen don’t think they’re getting a fair share. Commercial fishermen believe they’ve already given up too many of their fish.
There is no easy mechanism for the Inlet’s evolution from a fishery dominated by a minority of commercial interests to one controlled by a majority of personal-use and sports interests, though a commercial permit buy-back program has been suggested a number of times. It has never gone anywhere.
The number of commercial fishermen allowed to work the Inlet was capped by the Alaska Limited Entry Act in 1973. The fishermen then working the Inlet were given permits that became their property. Most of those fishermen have since sold their permits, and some of the permits have been sold many times.
Some are today for sale on the open market for up to $60,000, though others go for as little as $19,000. But no matter the price, the people who own the permits recoil at the idea of giving up their special access to a public resource or anymore of their individually unlimited opportunity to catch and sell salmon.
Collectively, the 1,400 permit holders caught 3 million salmon in the Inlet last year, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The catch was calculated to be worth $27.3 million, or about $21,000 per permit.
A significant number of the permit holders are hobbyists – businessmen, professionals, lawyers, doctors, school teachers, and a writer or two – fishing mainly for extra income and fun, but the Inlet still supports some professional fishermen who earn their living fishing there.
That only encourages them to fight harder to avoid sharing any of the resource with sport and personal-use interests even though the commercial fishery has been by far the biggest beneficiary of a boom in Alaska salmon numbers that began in the 1980s thanks to a warmer North Pacific Ocean and careful fish management by the state.
In the decade after statehood, the commercial catch of Inlet sockeye, the region’s money fish, averaged 1.3 millon per year, and it fell to 1.1 million per year in the 1970s. But a turnaround in the ’80s that continued on into the new millennium boosted the average annual catch to 4.4 million per year.
Over the same time, the sport, personal-use and subsistence harvests increased by about only about 500,000 salmon, and in some years the sport harvests of Chinook and coho – the fish most prized by anglers – fell as the fish tangled in gillnets intend mainly to catch sockeye but able to snag Chinook, or king salmon as Alaskans most often call them, and coho as well.
Some UCI commercial fishermen have worked hard to try to reduce their catch of sport-prized kings, but others have argued they are entitled to those salmon because they been historically caught in the net fisheries. Kings are the biggest and least plentiful of all Pacific salmon.
Of the approximately 4 million salmon killed in the Inlet last year, less than 1 percent were kings. Sockeye comprised most of the harvest. Commercial fishermen caught 1.8 million of them and dipnetters another 420,000. The rod-and-reel harvest by anglers is still being calculated, but is expected to be in the range of 400,000 to 500,000. The rest of the catch is made up of coho, chum and pink salmon of which there is a huge bounty no one much wants in the 49th state.
Walker won election with the support of commercial fishermen on the Kenai Peninsula. He returned the favor by appointing Roland Maw to the Fish Board. Maw was the former director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, the region’s most influential commercial fishing group.
He was also a resident of Montana or claiming to be. That turned out to be a problem. It is illegal to claim to residency in two states at the same time. Montana began investigating Maw. Walker told Maw, who was serving as a Fish Board member but had yet be confirmed by the Legislature, to withdraw his name, according to a former state official in a position to know what happened.
Maw withdrew his name and then suggested he’d done so because Cook Inlet fisheries are so controversial. Walker never disclosed anything. State officials at the time publicly refused to say whether they were investigating Maw’s residency status, though investigations were underway.
Montana eventually convicted of Maw of illegally obtaining resident hunting licenses there, and Alaska began investigating him for Permanent Fund Dividend fraud.
That was something else the state refused to disclose until felony charges were filed against Maw by the Department of Law. Since then, Maw and the state have been in and out of court repeatedly as Maw has quashed or tried to quash indictments. His main argument is that the PFD applications were filed electronically and there is no evidence he was at the keyboard.
Walker, meanwhile, has renewed his relationship with Maw. Maw was in the room when Walker met with UCIDA in Anchorage earlier this year in an apparent lead up to the secretive UCI talks now underway.
All of it stinks, Arno said.
“The sooner we get rid of this governor, the better,” he said, adding that he is curious as to who is paying for the meetings being hosted by the governor.
They are being run by Bill Dann of Anchorage-based “Professional Growth Systems.”
Dann’s “commitment both as a consultant and a writer is to enable individuals to achieve their full potential and fulfillment from work, and thereby for organizations to attain a high level of performance,” according to the company website.
“He and partner Doug Johnson developed a suite of tools that have proven themselves over the years to deliver on this commitment.
“Following graduate school in business administration, Bill fulfilled his military commitment with two years in Alaska with the Indian Health Service, a branch of the U.S. Public Health Service. He then took the opportunity to establish and build the second of what became a statewide network of Alaska Native health corporations.”
A house sitter answered Dann’s phone in Anchorage on Friday and said Dann is out-of-town until sometime next week.
“Is the governor paying him, or his he being paid by ADF&G?” Arno asked. The question was asked of the governor’s office last week, but has not been answered. One attendant at the governor’s private meetings facilitated by Dann describe them as what might be described as a summit of silliness.
One of the questions, the invitee said, focused on whether everyone could agree that salmon are important to Alaskans. That is a little like asking if everyone can agree on whether oxygen in the atmosphere is important to humans, the source said.
Neither the invitee nor others were willing to go on record publicly. There is no upside for challenging the governor for holding the meetings, they said, even if they are – in the opinion of some participants – a waste of the state’s money at a time when Alaska is struggling fiscally.
Still, there is little doubt that if Walker could solve an unsolvable problem and thus end decades of fish wars in UCI, he would secure a place in Alaska’s political hall of fame. But there is no easy way to satisfy an increasingly angry majority wanting a bigger slice of a public resource controlled by a powerful minority.