The governor who embraced Cook Inlet commercial fishermen is gone. A new governor whose home is in the salmon-starved Matanuska-Susitna Borough at the head of the Inlet is in office. And the Alaska Board of Fisheries has decided to move a 2020 Inlet management meeting back to Anchorage.
This despite Kenai Peninsula politicians on Friday making a $50,000 offer to keep the meeting in Soldotna. There were fireworks.
Fish Board member Robert Ruffner from Kenai, who has spent most of his term on the state regulatory body denying that his main interest is protecting Kenai interests, was not happy about even discussing a move.
“I want to start by apologizing to all of you who are here in the audience,” he said before the Board’s Friday, 4-3 vote to move. “It’s not fair to you.”
The audience was largely made up of rural Alaskans who’d come to Anchorage for a meeting to discuss AYK – Arctic, Kuskokwim and Yukon – fishery regulations. They were meeting in Anchorage because it is the airline hub of the 49th state, and because many people from tiny villages in the remote part of the state like an excuse to visit the big city, especially if they are a member of a state fish and wildlife advisory committee (AC), who can qualify for travel reimbursement.
The audience didn’t seem to have much reaction to Ruffner’s apology.
He then questioned whether there was adequate public notice of the discussion of moving the February 2020 meeting before he revealed that people on the Kenai were well aware of another vote on a move.
Kenai politicians, he noted, drove the 158 miles from Kenai to Anchorage to submit several proposals to the board, among them that offer to provide for the Board a free venue and information technology services valued at $50,000.
They went home after Board chairman Reed Morisky from Fairbanks told them he wasn’t sure there would be a Friday vote. Ruffner said they were told it would not happen.
“They went home,” he said. “The mayor of my town went home. To me, it’s patently unfair.”
Kenai, has wanted the Board to meet there “for over a decade. People have gone from diapers to college” without a meeting, he said before offering a second apology.
“I apologize to those of you in the audience who need to listen to this,” he said. “It’s garbage.”
Ruffner sounded as upset about the move as former state fisheries biologist Howard Delo from the Matanuska-Susitna Borough was about the second vote shifting the meeting from Anchorage to Kenai.
“The BOF initially voted in October, 2017, to hold the 2020 UCI (Upper Cook Inlet) meeting in Anchorage,” Delo, now a columnist for the MatSu Valley Frontiersman wrote in May of last year. “There was a healthy discussion about locations and meeting costs, where the bulk of the UCI users resided, accessibility to the meeting for most users, and more. As I recall, the vote was 4 to 3 to hold the meeting in Anchorage. I hoped this would be the last word on the subject for a while.”
It wasn’t. As Delo noted, Walker met with commercial fishing groups and said he’d get the meeting moved.
“The BOF chair brought this up at the Sitka meeting with no public notice and, I have been told, a vote almost happened (without any public notice),” Delo wrote. “Cooler minds prevailed, and the topic was scheduled for the recently completed BOF meeting in Anchorage.
“I testified at that meeting raising the finality point and further suggested that the board take up the topic again, in cycle, and decide in favor or against a proposal one board member had drafted regarding a meeting location rotation cycle for the UCI meeting,” Delo added. “My testimony fell on deaf ears.”
There are no reports of new Gov. Mike Dunleavy telling the Board what to do, but there are rumors one of his aides might have suggested a move back to Anchorage would be favored.
And why are fishery interests getting their panties in a bunch over where a regulatory meeting is held?
Because everyone seems to believe that if they can get the Board to meet in their community, and if they can get enough people to turn out and glower at the Board members, they can shift fishery regulations in their favor.
Board member Israel Peyton said Friday that he would prefer the next meeting be held in Skwentna – a remote, off-the-road community near which he grew up in a regularly ignored back corner of the Mat-Su.
“I don’t recall that there’s ever been a Board meeting up there,” he said, adding that the people living off the grid, sometimes far off the grid, in the MatSu have felt “disenfranchised for years” sitting as they do “at the end of the line” of Inlet harvests.
Salmon runs are sometimes netted and hooked down to little by the time the remnant fish reach the upper reaches of the many streams draining into the Inlet.
From the time salmon bound for the Susitna, Yentna, Talkeenta and other rivers in the MatSu enter the Inlet, they are preyed upon by commercial fishermen and then anglers in the lower parts of the various drainages before reaching far upstream communities like Skwenta and Talkeetna.
On the Yukon River, which heads in Canada before running almost 2,000 miles mainly across Alaska to the sea, upstream fishing interests are protected by a treaty that guarantees them a share of the returning fish.
MatSu residents have no such protection. How many salmon reach them is determined by Board policies as to how aggressively commercial fishermen will be allowed to pursue salmon in the Inlet and the whims of biologists with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game in charge of in-season salmon management.
The man Walker put in charge of the in-season management was Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, a former commercial fisherman with two sons still fishing in the Inlet and deep ties to commercial fishing interests.
The man Walker wanted the Board to consider putting in charge was commercial driftnet fisherman Roland Maw, the one-time director of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA). UCIDA is the most powerful fishing lobby in the region.
After the Board refused to consider Maw as commissioner, Walker altered the makeup of the Board. He eventually changed five of the seven members, but Maw was his first appointment.
Shortly thereafter it was discovered Maw had puffed up his resume by claiming to have discovered an endangered species while a college professor in Canada. But that was just a little fib compared to what came next.
Maw was found to be claiming to be a resident of both Montana and Alaska to get cheap hunting and fishing licenses. Before that news become public, Maw removed himself from the Board and the state’s largest newspaper, then owned by Walker’s good friend Alice Rogoff, covered up the reason why, claiming Maw had fallen victim to “Kenai River fish wars.”
The Anchorage Dispatch News story couldn’t have been farther from the truth. The truth was that Maw was under investigation in both Montana and Alaska for lying about his residency.
Montana convicted him and his son, a Nevada resident who fishes commercially in Cook Inlet in the summers, on various charges of lying to obtain licenses or hunting illegally.
The state of Alaska eventually charged Roland with multiple felonies for claiming Permanent Fund Dividends (PFDs) while claiming residency in Montana. Roland managed to several times get the charges tossed by arguing the state couldn’t prove he was at the keyboard of his computer when the PFD applications were filed, but the same defense made it almost impossible for the state of Alaska – which does much of its business online – to let him go.
Each time he managed to get an indictment quashed, he was re-indicted. The now 75-year-old has managed to drag the case out for three years at an untold cost, but he is scheduled to go trial in Juneau next month.
His legal problems did nothing to hamper his relationship with Walker or UCIDA, however. A smiling Walker posed for a photo with Maw and the rest of the UCIDA gang after Maw’s first indictment, and Maw and UCIDA were involved in helping Walker set up a “Cook Inlet Task Force” in an apparent attempt end run the Board of Fish in Walker’s last days as governor.
This is not how it was supposed to have worked when the very first Alaska Legislature established the Board of Fish and Game, later to become the Board of Fisheries and the Board of Game.
“Under the Alaska Constitution, the Board of Fish and Game was founded in 1960 to provide for public discussion on the in the state’s fish and wildlife management. The mission of the Fish and Game Board was for the conservation and development of the fisheries and game resources of the
state,” the official legislative history says.
“Board members were appointed by the Governor and confirmed by the legislature to four-year terms. Requirements for board membership was state residency and selection was conducted without regard to political affiliation or location of residence.”
The Alaska approach was once thought of as a model for wild resource management.
“By taking on the task of resolving fishery disputes, the Board takes the politically charged issue of allocation away from the fishery managers and politicians,” former Alaska Lt. Gov. Fran Ulmer observed in The Elements of Alaska’s Sustainable Fisheries in 2000. “While this system is not without its flaws, it dramatically increased the credibility of the management program by effectively separating decisions regarding allocation from those related to conservation. The separation of allocation and conservation decisions is critical for achieving sustainable fisheries in the state and elsewhere in the Northwest.”
The process might have taken the “politically charged issue of allocation away from the fishery managers and politicians,” at least directly until the Walker years. But the process itself has become increasingly political.
The last time the board considered Cook Inlet, Mat-Su residents by the dozens trooped before the Board to plead for management changes that would allow more salmon to get past the commercial fleet in the Inlet.
The result? The Board voted to increase the commercial catch.
As then Board Chairman John Jensen, a commercial fisherman from Petersburg in the Panhandle put it, “(these changes) will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
About a year after that vote, Walker appointed Jensen to a coveted position the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, or “the family” as council members have been known to refer to the organization.
Jensen is clearly angling to keep that position despite the change in governors. He was the one who Friday offered the motion to move the Board meeting back to Anchorage, and later said he did so because he had to leave the current Board meeting on Saturday and thought all members should be in on the vote.
He then became the key player in the 4-3 tally.
Ruffner had a legitimate complaint about Kenai politicians going home instead of hanging around to stare down the Board in the hope that might change the vote, but Morisky said “there was no intent to mislead.”
He believed, he said, that the issue was in limbo until Jensen said he wanted a vote of the full board. It would have been pointless to take the measure to a vote without Jensen. It would have died 3-3.
Al Cain, a former Alaska State Trooper from Anchorage, and Fritz Johnson, a commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay, joined Ruffner in arguing the move was unfair. But both have some issues with angling interests that wanted the meeting in Anchorage where it would be easily accessible to the maximum number of anglers and personal-use dipnet fishermen.
Some in the sportfishing community have questioned how objective Cain can be about fishery management issues while working for the Department of Fish and Game. His job, they argue, would seem to encourage him to go along with whatever recommended policy decision is offered by state fishery biologists.
Johnson, meanwhile, was taken to task for serving on both the Board and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI). ASMI promotes the commercial harvest and sale of commercially caught Alaska salmon. The Board is tasked to impartially allocate salmon between commercial, subsistence, personal use and sport fishermen in the state.
Johnson has now resigned from ASMI. That doesn’t appear to have done anything to tamp down the Fish Board’s politic infighting.
The system set up to keep politics out of Alaska fishery management is now about as tangled up in politics as anything can get.
And the words of the Alaska Constitution seem to have been forgotten:
“The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.
“Wherever occurring in their natural state, fish, wildlife, and waters are reserved to the people for common use.”
Unfortunately, how to extract that “maximum benefit” from resources subject to “common use” has never been clearly defined. As a result, the state has fractured into a plethora of groups screaming “I want mine” with the groups with the best organization and the most money usually emerging with a hold on the largest salmon allocation.