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Smoke-filled rooms

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A pile of Cook Inlet sockeye salmon, one of Alaska’s most fought over resources/Craig Medred photo

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.blurb1

Battleground UCI

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.

Vested interests

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.

Fishy smell

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.

 

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23 replies »

  1. Walker casted his vote for this term as Governor…Sam Cotton has decided who will get the Salmon this season in the Upper Cook Inlet….think big nets and outside interests.

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  2. If invited to attend these facilitated meetings I would ask the Governor or his Commissioner of ADFG to describe what they consider the “problem” to be with regard to salmon fishery management in Upper Cook Inlet. Another question that should be asked is what is the Walker administration’s vision of what the salmon fisheries of Upper Cook Inlet should look like in the future. This Governor’s appointments should give one a clue but it would be informative to press them for an answer.

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    • Frankly, anyone can answer your first question and that is that nobody (of the three groups invited) agrees as to what fishery management in UCI should be and as far as your next question: That’s what the meeting is hoping to determine!
      May not be possible to get any consensus on what’s hoped for but not a lot of harm in trying IMO.

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      • Bill,frankly I’m not asking how representatives of the user groups would define the “problem” or what their vision is for the future. What I would be very interested to know is how the guy who appoints individuals to the Board of Fisheries or the guy who provides leadership for the ADFG would answer these two questions.To suggest that this process is designed to fill a blank slate is naive and not fair to either the participants, the Governor or Commissioner.

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      • I suspect that both are well versed in what they’ve been told by the lobbyists that are the most interested in this issue. The issue is evidently big enough to warrant this meeting to attempt some kind of compromise, if its possible. And probably not a chance in a carload that they would give an answer that will lose them votes come November.
        In other words, you wouldn’t get an honest answer IMO-it would be a typical political thing along the lines of what I originally suggested.

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    • Attending these politically motivated meetings will be a waste of time and might have unintended consequences . You can be sure that Walker will stack the deck with a majority of people favoring the commercial sector. Some may claim to be sports or dip net users, but beware! They have been hand picked for a reason. A majority will vote to make specific recommendations to the BOF and the Dept. And these recommendations will be given publicity with information that the meetings were attended by all user groups and that a majority voted to make the changes recommended. Sports, guided sports, and the Dip netters will face the prospect of being part of a multi user group that has made recommendations for management and policy changes that favor the commercial sector. It is a no win situation. Walker will look reasonable and claim that there has been an accord reached among UCI users. He will claim that the fish wars are over and take credit. And it will all be a political move to get him reelected! Attend these meetings at your peril.

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      • Bill, who I am or who AF is or where he lives seems irrelevant.
        So try to help me out here. What benefit do you see coming out of this secret task force? I am unaware of any UCI task force in the past producing anything of benefit for the users or the resource. The next UCI meeting takes place long after the next election. If Walker loses ( a pretty safe bet imo ), there will be several new members on the BOF, a new Commissioner and Directors, and likely more changes that directly affect fisheries management. Thus, what ever the task force comes up with it will likely not last past the election. The BOF with help from the Dept and Advisory Committes normally is tasked with making policy in a public and transparent process. The governor has created a process that is not open to the public and has hand picked the membership. How does this foster trust in making fishery policy and management decisions?

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      • You seem especially concerned about this meeting AF and I suspect that your concern is that there could be something of benefit of both users and resource. Whoa……………..and what if it’s able to produce additional votes for Walker and his ilk??

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    • Kevin – Didn’t KRSA’s friends (Matsu/Fight4fish) ask for this task force last fall? Shouldn’t your question be posed to them? How secret were these meetings, really? Lots of people knew about them. I was told they were open to the public. I know that your org KRSA, the Matsu/Fight4fish folks, and Craig Medred work closely together, so from my perspective it looks like y’all asked for a task force and are now trying to torpedo it while vilifying Walker for doing what you asked.

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  3. Although on paper our management system seems like a good thing, as long as the BOF and BOG are appointed by the governor we will be managing with politics and not biology. Both boards need to be dominated by science, and until then it will remain a system run by “good ‘ol boys” slapping each other on the back while theyboad their pockets.

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    • One of Roland Maws main arguments for getting himself appointed to BOF a couple of years ago was that he was a PHD biologist-how is that for managing with biology, Dave??

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      • BY – I dunno. If he can’t figure out which state he is a resident of, how can he possibly figure out the UCI fisheries? As we’ve seen with the glowarmers, once you get into the lyin’ business, it is real easy to extend those techniques everywhere else, science be damned. I’d be careful defending Maw if I were you, but that’s just me. Note that we still have the UCIDA lawsuit in federal court attempting to hijack the fisheries management from the SOA and put the feds in charge. Rationale? The only user groups the feds pay attention to are commfish and subsistence. Sport fish and personal use have no standing in the federal world. Cheers –

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      • What made you think I was defending Maw?
        I just remember the argument for having a Board member with a biology background that i thought ridiculous, at the time, since the Board has access to the entire Department full of biologists. The Board members can get whatever biological information they need but clearly that isn’t going to satisfy those (like Dave above) that believe its just a big “good ‘ol boys” system.

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  4. ” smoked filled room”? I think with the anti smoking banned in public places not a reality anymore LOL.(the newer generation my not even know what this term means) The concept of consensus has rarely worked when groups are formed outside the BOF or BOG process to solve hot topics. They cost the State a horrible amount of money with little to no results. I have been part of several backroom consensus groups deal with fish and game, i would gather from my experience this one will cost the state over $100,000 easily.

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  5. The current BOF majority, appointed by Walker as payback to the UCI commercial sector, will do what ever Cotten and Walker want. Whatever this secret task force comes up
    with will surely favor Walkers benefactors and the current BOF will be asked to adopt its work product. Thankfully there will be a new governor before irreparable harm occurs.

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  6. Cotton sent the BOF an email on the 18th assuring them that the task force will not impinge on the board’s authority. I’m wondering how that’s possible!

    Sent from my iPad

    >

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    • Walker and Cotten have been regularly impinging on BOF authority since before Walker’s election. Even before being elected he threatened board members if they refused to hold the UCI meeting in Kenai, he threw out a Board member and appointed Roland Maw, the Executive director of the commercial drift net fleet. As Governor, hevthreatened or rewarded other Board members to get them to agree to significant policy changes to UCI fisheries. He nominated a Board members to the Council as one reward and has appointed several new Board members that strongly favored commercial fishing interests on the peninsula. All at the expense of the hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who are entitled to a ‘fair’ opportunity at the resource.
      Does anyone really believe that he and Cotten will not continue to impinge on the BOF with this hand picked “secret “ task force?

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      • Not to defend Walker by any means and he needs to go. But he did appoint Israel Payton a very good BOF member.

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