The day after the Alaska Legislature blocked the confirmation of a Board of Fisheries (BOF) appointee amid allegations he sexually harassed multiple employees of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, the state agency revealed it has no record of anyone filing even a single allegation.
The revelation does not clear retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone, a former BOF chairman, but it does raise troubling questions because of the implications that either:
- Alaska Fish and Game supports a culture so toxic that women are afraid to report being sexually harassed, or
- A lie was concocted to sabotage Johnstone’s reappointment to the Board to provide legislators cover to carry out the wishes of his powerful political enemies in the commercial fishing industry.
Either of these scenarios is a possibility. Sexual harassment in the world of science has become a major issue since #metoo forced a public reckoning.
“When it comes to sexual harassment and sexual assault in science,” says the website 500 Women Scientists, “the evidence is clear. Seventy-one percent of women field researchers have received inappropriate sexual remarks and 26 percent reported experiencing sexual assault.”
500 Women Scientists was started by four graduate students at Colorado University Boulder who in 2016 wrote an open letter to scientific colleagues querying them about sexual harassment. They hoped, they later wrote, “to get 500 signatures – 500 seemed aspirational. We surpassed that goal within hours of posting the letter, and we continue to reach more and more….”
The organization’s home page opens to a photo of an empty ocean. Sexual harassment at sea – whether in the world of science or business – has long been a problem as another Alaska fisherman points out at the website StrengthoftheTides.org.
“…To ignore the dangerous rhetoric and abusive action of sexism within our own communities is to turn a blind eye to the unnecessary suffering many women experience on the commercial fishing grounds or in any maritime industries,” says the website. “Today, it is important to hold ourselves and the fleet accountable.”
Fish and Game officials said Friday they believe their agency represents one of those safe places. Stacie Bentley, the agency’s human resources director, said women employees are encouraged to report sexual harassment and provided robust protection if they do.
“If people file a complaint, they can’t be retaliated against,” she said. “The state prohibits retaliation against a person who files a complaint.”
Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang, recently appointed by newly elected Gov. Mike Dunleavy, said his first reaction upon hearing of the charges levied against Johnstone was to check with others in the agency to find out if there was a problem.
A former director of the agency’s Wildlife Division, Vincent-Lang said he knows how insidious sexual harassment can be because he has had to deal with it in the past as a supervisor. The matter was handled privately, he said, and the woman involved fully protected.
“I take this seriously,” he said. “We have had issues in the past that we reported through the process. I feel confident in it.” But, he added, he planned to raise the issue within the Department again to see if any women have fear.
Women in power
For a good part of the time that Johnstone served on the BOF, the Fish and Game Department was run by women.
Stefanie Moreland was the deputy commissioner. She has since taken the job as director of Government Relations and Seafood Sustainability for Trident Seafoods. The company has been described by its hometown newspaper as “a Seattle-based seafood giant.” It made founder Chuck Bundrant the first billionaire in the commercial fishing business.
Monica Wellard was the executive director of BOF. She oversaw a staff of less than 10, most of them women. Wellard has since transferred to the job of administrative operations manager for Fish and Game’s Division of Sport Fisheries.
“Nothing was reported to me,” she said Friday. “I certainly would have done something about it.”
Attempts to reach Campbell and Moreland proved unsuccessful. The companies for which they work are deeply tangled in the Johnstone opposition. Silver Bay and Trident are supporting, business members of the United Fishermen of Alaska (UFA), the state’s most powerful commercial fishing lobby.
The UFA vowed to do whatever necessary to block Johnstone’s confirmation to the BOF. “It is going to take full action from our fleet…,” a UFA action alert to members warned.
Since the sexual harassment accusation against Johnstone surfaced, two women who once worked for Fish and Game have been linked to it. One now works for UFA. The other is employed by a third major salmon processor in Alaska that is a business member of UFA.
They, like Campbell and Moreland, moved on from Fish and Game to better jobs working for the commercial fishing industry. The names of the women linked to the #metoo claim are known to almost everyone involved in the tight word of Alaska fishery politics, but will be kept private here.
Many victims of sexual harassment are reluctant to report their experiences out of a false sense of shame that they might be responsible, according to experts on the issue. And Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, chair of the House Resources Committee, has pushed a narrative that paints Johnstone as someone known to retaliate against those who challenge him, though no evidence has ever been presented to demonstrate any form of retaliation against anyone.
Stutes herself is an unabashed backer of the Alaska commercial fishing industry.
Before hearings on Johnstone’s confirmation began, she charged in one of her legislative reports that “he would destroy any semblance of the current balance on the Board. During his time on the board from 2008-2015, Mr. Johnstone established a reputation for anti-commercial fishing views….”
As evidence, she has pointed to a 2017 newspaper op-ed in which Johnstone warned of the large and growing dominance of farmed salmon that drives down the value of Alaska’s commercially caught wild fish. He suggested the time has come to consider allocating more salmon to sport fisheries capable of producing a better economic return on a common-property resource.
Commercial fishing, according to a state Fish and Game study, accounts for the harvest of 98.5 percent of the state’s wild resources. Sport fishing, that same study concluded, takes 0.4 percent and so-called personal-use fishing 0.1 percent.
Personal-use dipnet fishing is, however, a big issue in the Inlet that washes up against the Anchorage metro area home to more than half the state’s population. Urban Alaskan dipnetters harvest about 10 percent of Inlet sockeye salmon.
Harvests from the Kenai and Kasilof rivers reached a peak of almost 620,000 in 2011 when 8.4 million sockeye returned to the Inlet. but were down to less than 300,000, about a third of those fish from the Kasilof, as the Kenai run faltered last year.
For the 1,100 commercial fishermen active in the Inlet, the Alaska-resident-only, personal-use dipnetters are stealing commercial fish and commercial fish profits no matter the size of the sockeye return. The record personal use catch came in a year when the commercial catch was 5.3 million sockeye, fourth highest Inlet history, but commercial fishermen were none the happier.
And then there are anglers, many of them tourists. From 2004 to 2013, according to a report the McDowell Group prepared for commercial fishing interests, sport fisheries account for another 9 percent of the harvest. As a result commercial fishermen are left with but 81 percent.
When Johnstone was on the Board, commercial fishermen were angered by his success in convincing other BOF members to boost so-called salmon “escapements” into Inlet streams and rivers. Escapements are a count of the salmon getting past commercial nets to return to the streams of their births.
Commercial fishermen saw larger escapements as nothing but a ploy to shift fish from the commercial harvest to anglers and dipnetters.
Cook Inlet is the most fought over fishery in the state, and there are no objective standards for allocating salmon harvests there. Given no measure with which to parse the resource, it is simply impossible for the BOF to come up with a “fair” allocation.
Noncommercial fishermen considered the BOF under Johnstone’s leadership the most fair ever. Commercial fishermen, at the same, considered the BOF under Johnstone’s leadership the most unfair ever.
Still, despite Stutes’ aggressive opposition to Johnstone, her support from some other lawmakers from areas dominated by commercial fishing interests, and the political muscle of the UFA, it was widely believed Johnstone had the votes for confirmation when the Dunleavy picks for Cabinet and commission appointments headed to the floor of a joint House-Senate session on Thursday.
Prior to the vote, however, Stutes and Rep. Ivy Sponholz, D-Anchorage, were seen consulting a cell phone on the floor. What was on the phone is unknown.
But Sponholz announced that “in the last 24-hours, more than two women have reached out to my office, people who worked for the Board of Fish when Johnstone was previously on the Board of Fish to share concerns about his behavior. They each described inappropriate sexual comments, which created a hostile work environment for them repeatedly.”
Sen. Jack Coghill, R-North Pole, objected, and the confirmation vote was temporarily tabled, but lawmakers returned shortly thereafter to vote Johnstone’s appointment down 33-24.
Sen. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, a sometimes critic of the influence of commercial fishermen in Cook Inlet, later told KTVA.com that the #metoo accusation was what shifted the vote.
“I didn’t feel comfortable voting for someone and putting them back into a situation where they were going to be working with the accusers,” he said. “It made me very uncomfortable to do that and I had planned on supporting him, so I know it changed votes. I talked to other legislators and it changed their votes.”
Sponholz did not respond to a query asking what was on the phone. Two Republican lawmakers, both of whom represent commercial fishing areas and said they planned to vote against Johnstone, offered public apologies to the retired judge after the #metoo blowup.
House Speaker Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham, did not return a phone call asking for his view on the charges of actual sexual harassment versus “sick political stunts” versus real sexual assault problems at Fish and Game now roiling the House where the opposition to the Johnstone appointment centered.
Johnstone, who is married to a state prosecutor, issued a statement Saturday saying this:
“Women have endured for too long various forms of sexual harassment in the workplace and elsewhere. I believe that legitimate claims should be taken seriously and investigated.
“But let me be clear, I never made inappropriate sexual comments as stated
by Rep. Sponholz.”
The statement also highlighted that all of the women working in the support section for the Board when Johnstone was there previously have since left state employment or moved to other jobs, and noting that even if they were still working in the section, the BOF has no influence over the hiring or firing of state employees.
Out of sight
Neither of the women linked to the accusations against Johnstone have returned phone calls.
After the Johnstone accusations were leveled on the floor of the Legislature, two sources in the fishing industry who asked their names not be used said the woman who works for UFA informed them that she was not the person responsible for the accusation. A third source could not be found to verify that claim.
The second woman linked to the accusation now holds a position of some influence with Icicle Seafoods, another member of the group of seven, seafood-processing powerhouses that support the UFA.
Founded in the fishing port of Petersburg in the state’s Panhandle, Icicle has long been a major and aggressive player in state politics. The company logo is a Viking longboat sporting a sail decorated with the map of Alaska. The longboat was a much-feared warship of the Middle Ages.
A power player in Alaska fishery politics for 50 years, Icicle only became more so after its acquisition by Cooke Inc. in 2016. Based in New Brunswick, Canada, Cooke is the parent of Cooke Aquaculture Inc.
“The Globe and Mail,” a Canadian newspaper, calls “Cooke Aquaculture Inc….the world’s largest independent seafood company, with billions of dollars in annual revenue, shipping one billion pounds of fresh seafood annually to 67 countries.”
Cooke owns the Icicle Seafoods Seward Fisheries Facility and maintains a number of buying stations in the Inlet for the purchase of sockeye. Fish and Game considers the company a “major” buyer of Inlet salmon.
Any shift in Inlet sockeye from commercial to non-commercial harvests could cost the company, which has been active in the past in protecting its business interests. Icicle pushed the appointment to the BOF of commercial fisherman Roland Maw, the former director of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerfu commerical fishing lobby.
An appointee of former Gov. Bill Walker, Maw was an even more contentious pick for the BOF than Johnstone. Maw argued that salmon in the Inlet are commercially underharvested to the tune of 18.5 million fish.
That state mismanagement, an attorney for UCIDA charged in a lawsuit filed to force a federal take over of management in the federal waters of the Inlet, cost UCIDA members of more than $32 million. Federal officials are still trying to define their role in managing the federal waters.
Maw lost out on his opportunity to try to put money back in the pockets of commercial fishermen after it became known he was only masquerading as an Alaskan. He withdrew his name from the confirmation process upon the discovery he was claiming to be Montanan, too.
He did not, however, admit to that at the time, suggesting instead that he had been sabotaged by the Inlet’s sport and personal-use fishing interests. Though subsequently charged with multiple counts of felony Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD) fraud for taking payments to which only Alaska residents are entitled, Maw was soon back in the fold at UCIDA.
He remains active in the organization. He popped up among the online commenters at the House Resources Committee hearing to note he had been listening, but he offered no comments. He is at this time scheduled to go to trial in Juneau in May on the charges of PFD fraud.
Few things in Alaska are more tangled than fishery politics.