This story has been updated
Only a day after outlining a plan for Cook Inlet salmon talks and issuing an administrative order officially sanctioning a fisheries task force that started meeting secretly on May 9, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker Tuesday put the whole program on hold until fall.
It appears administration officials have learned the interested parties expect to be so busy trying to catch salmon in June, July and August that they don’t want to waste time arguing about catching salmon next year or sometime thereafter. The discovery doesn’t seem to have taken a lot of detective work.
Some members of the pre-task task force that met twice in May “thought it better to convene when everyone has a bit more time to meet,” Glenn Haight, the executive director of the state Boards of Fish and Game, said in an email to some fishermen a copy of which was obtained by craigmedred.news.
Salmon have only just begun arriving in Alaska waters from the north Pacific Ocean. Traditionally salmon fishing activity starts building in June, peaks in July and early August, and then starts to fade.
“Would you please let us know if you would be willing to continue in the fall,” Haight added in the email, “and if so…when in the fall would be the best time?”
Haight’s role in the task force is unclear, given that the executive-branch entity is supposed to be operating separately from the state Board of Fisheries, a group to which the Alaska Legislature long ago transferred its regulatory authority for managing the state’s fish resources. Haight did not respond to a request for comment.
“AS 16.05.221 establishes the Board of Fisheries (BOF) for the purpose of conservation and development of the fishery resources of the state,” the administrative order concedes. “Governor’s Fisheries Advisory Task Force(s) (Task Force) will not undermine the role or authority of the Board of Fisheries.”
Some former members of the BOF were, however, suspicious. To some it looked a little like Walker was trying to create a shadow BOF operating free of legislative oversight. As the system is now set up, the governor picks the members of the Board of Fish, but they must be approved by the Legislature.
That has sometimes created problems for Walker. The task force solves that.
“Voting Task Force members will be appointed by and serve at the pleasure of the Governor,” the administrative order said, adding that they would meet “no less than quarterly; with additional meetings authorized at the call of the chair, at the call of a majority of members, or as specified in the activation letter or memorandum.”
How the chair would be determined was not outlined.
“Is it going to be Roland Maw?” former BOF chairman Tom Kluberton of Talkeetna asked when reached Tuesday. “That would be great.”
He was being facetious.
Into the Maw
Maw is the former executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerful fish lobby. He remains an influential UCIDA member and attended a private, UCIDA meeting with the governor in the spring before the task force was quietly convened.
Whether the task force was discussed in that meeting is not known. The idea emerged as Walker prepared to run for re-election in the fall. The governor has political problems with sport fishing interests in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area at the head of Cook Inlet and in the Interior city of Fairbanks.
Some of those problems are tied to Walker’s long history with Maw. Walker appointed Maw to the BOF in January 2015. The ink on the appointment was barely dry before former BOF Chairman Karl Johnstone was warning that Walker might well regret the move.
Walker had just informed Johnstone he would not be reappointed to the Board, and Johnstone, a former state Superior Court Judge, immediately stepped down.
“The reason expressed by the governor for not reappointing me was his dissatisfaction with the BOF when it did not interview and then submit Maw’s name to him as being qualified to serve as the commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game,” Johnstone wrote in an oped in the Anchorage Daily News.
Johnstone said he sent Walker a letter explaining why Board members thought Maw unfit to serve as Fish and Game commissioner, but Walker ignored it. He subsequently appointed former commercial fishermen Sam Cotten commissioner and named Maw to the Fish Board to replace Johnstone.
Maw did not remain on the Board for long. He was attending meetings with the Board but had yet to be confirmed by the Legislature when he removed himself from consideration in Feb. 2015.
The Anchorage Daily News falsely reported Maw had fallen victim to “Kenai River fish wars.” The truth was much more interesting. Maw had been caught claiming to be a resident of two states – Montana and Alaska – in order to get cheaper resident hunting licenses in the former and allegedly collect the same plus Permanent Fund Dividends (PFDs) in Alaska.
Maw has been convicted in Montana, but is still battling felony charges related to the PFDs. He argues the state can’t prove he was at the keys of his computer when his PFD applications were filed electronically. A Juneau judge has twice tossed indictments against Maw, but the state – which allows a lot of business to be done with electronic signatures and could face some problems if Maw’s defense proved successful – continues to push the case.
Maw is now scheduled for trial in August. The charges against him do not appear to have cooled his relationship with the governor, which has undermined Walker’s relationship with non-commercial fishing interests in the aforementioned areas home to more than half the state’s population.
Alaska Outdoor Council (AOC) executive director Rod Arno in May accused Walker of setting up the secret task force in an effort to sidestep the BOF to cut a backroom deal on Cook Inlet fisheries management that might help him politically. The AOC is the state’s largest hunting and fishing group.
Walker faces a difficult political future. A political poll last winter found Walker the least popular governor in the country. A Republican turned independent but now widely perceived as a liberal in a conservative state, Walker faced a tough run against any of the Republican gubernatorial hopefuls, but now he is headed for a three-way race between the Republican candidate and former U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, a popular former Anchorage mayor and Democrat who almost won re-election in a red state in 2014 despite the big, red wave sweeping the country.
Some have suggested the incumbent Walker could end up third in the upcoming governor’s race. His Cook Inlet task force plan does not seem to have helped him with the bulk of the Alaska fishing community.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which sent representatives to the first two pre-task force meetings, was rumored to be considering withdrawing from further talks after reviewing Walker’s administrative order and an online summary of the quagmire the meetings have already become.
It did later withdraw, issuing a press release, saying it was uncomfortable with the governor’s plan to sidestep the “customary public process where fishery conservation and allocation proposals are presented for consideration to the” BOF.
“As KRSA is a non-profit and non-partisan organization, we feel that the task force does not yet have a clear vision, problem statement or stated objectives,” executive director Ricky Gease said, “and have concerns that any outcomes could be viewed as being political. The best course of action for us now is to withdraw from this process. Perhaps if there is another task force impaneled through the Alaska Board of Fisheries next year, we will consider participation at that time.”
Neither Walker nor Cotten have outlined what exactly the task force is expected to accomplish.
And the group’s assignment as stated online is – as a variety of participants note – so broad and vague as to be meaningless:
“The goal of the task force is to establish common understanding and areas of agreement between individuals or groups representing the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery. The end result is to provide the Governor written observations and/or recommendations to improve management of the Upper Cook Inlet salmon fishery in the best interest of the commercial, personal use, subsistence, and sportfish users through legislative, regulatory, and/or administrative change.”
After four decades of warring over salmon in Cook Inlet, the only area of common understanding and agreement is that everyone wants more salmon. That makes for inevitable problems in dividing a limited public resource between 935 commercial fishermen, who got 86 percent of the salmon catch in 2015, according to a study from the University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research, and everyone else.
Tourist anglers, who help support an Alaska visitor industry now valued at $2.42 billion per year, caught 1 percent, according to the ISER study. The other 13 percent was split between Alaska anglers, personal-use dipnetters and a handful of subsistence fishermen. The personal-use and subsistence fisheries are limited to Alaska residents, and differ only in that the subsistence fishermen are given a legal, first-in-line priority for harvest.
None of the interests have ever volunteered to take a smaller percentage of the catch, which leads to inevitable, infamous and regular Inlet fish wars. The summary of the task force’s first meetings offered no insight into solving that root problem.
The task force report, if it can be called that, is mainly a data dump of information responding to questions tossed out by the 21 task force participants who met with three facilitators in three separate groups on May 23.
The governor has not detailed the costs of these little get-togethers in a state still dealing with financial problems. Nor did his administrative order detail the anticipated costs of per diem and travel expenses promised those named to the official task force.
But if the intent of convening the task force was to provide a means to show that the Alaska Department of Fish and Game and other federal, state and municipal agencies collect a lot of information and come up with a lot of plans, the task force is already a rousing success.
The online report indicates Group One wanted a list of “long-term goals and objectives” for upper Cook Inlet. The BOF has been working on those subjects for 40 years. Thus it was easy for the report to provides links to more than 50 strategic plans, management objectives, research programs and habitat plans from federal, state and municipal entities.
The links lead to tens of thousands of pages of reading for anyone wanting to review what the BOF has done. It would take at least a week, likely longer, just to read all the information linked there.
Group Two wanted more up-to-date catch data, better salmon escapement (spawning) data and more accessible data. ADF&G has been working on better escapement monitoring since Statehood, and the amount of data now available online grows by the year. See Group One above.
In response to its request, Group Two got a long explanation of how data is collected and used by Fish and Game. The explanation offers little insight into anything, but does explain why secrets in the data remain: confidentiality rules. Fish and Game is legally prohibited from in any way identifying how many fish are caught and/or how much money is made by the individual businesses profiting off Alaska salmon.
Commercial salmon interests are the only businesses in Alaska treated in this way. A state law specifically states that the “landings of fish, shellfish, or fishery products, and annual statistical reports of fishermen, buyers, and processors” are to be confidential. Why fisheries are treated differently from other businesses making money off commonly owned state resources – such as oil and gas, minerals, timber and the like – is unclear.
Group Three was focused on producing more salmon, even though it is impossible to produce enough to end Inlet disputes, and wanted to know what was being done on salmon “sustainability issues.” The group got an outline of 13 programs on which more than $1 million per year is being spent to help salmon, mainly by killing northern pike.
The pike prey on young salmon. Various studies have concluded that once pike get into a salmon system – a problem not only in Alaska but in the Pacific Northwest as well – they can be controlled, but control becomes a costly annual program unless the system is one in which poison can be used.
Pike are native to North America, including much of Alaska north of the Alaska Range, but are considered an invasive species in areas they have colonized only in recent times. Once they get into a major watershed, it is just about impossible to get them out as long as there is the habitat to support them.