An Outdoor View: Fish board

I was disappointed Sunday when state legislators voted against confirming Soldotna resident Robert Ruffner’s appointment to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. It would’ve been so good, so right, having just one board member who is there to do what’s best for the fish, not there to do the bidding of fishing guides, commercial fishermen and the others who are in it mainly for the money.

The 29-30 vote was close, but close doesn’t count in this game. To win takes a simple majority.

Having a majority is what Ruffner’s appointment was about. What doomed his confirmation was that sport and personal-use advocates realized he would upset the delicate balance that the 7-member board has enjoyed in recent years. While it’s true that such balance is more hope than reality, for some years the board has had a semblance of balance with three “sport” members, three “commercial” members and one subsistence member. The seat to which Ruffner aspired was previously held by Karl Johnstone, a sport-fishing advocate. Giving one seat to a “neutral” would’ve given the commercial side a slight advantage.

During the run up to the confirmation hearings, when I saw commercial-fishing interests starting to support Ruffner’s confirmation, I figured it would be a close thing. But when dip-netters started opposing him, even after he told them he was an avid dip-netter, I knew his chances of being on the fish board were between slim and none.

I doubt that Ruffner reckoned on the political clout of the Alaska Outdoor Council and the Chitina Dipnetters Association, or that of Anchorage and Matanuska/Susitna legislators. These relatively new players have become game changers.

Looking back, I realize that I’ve played no small part in what are commonly referred to as the “fish wars.” In the 1970s and 1980s, I attended fish-board meetings when the scale was heavily weighted toward the commercial side. Being one who fished mainly for food and fun, I felt weak and helpless at those meetings. Often there were only two or three of my kind in a room full of commercial fishermen. I’d sit there, wondering why the people who swarmed to the Kenai Peninsula to fish every summer weren’t at that meeting to protect their interests.

For years, I tried to stimulate other sport fishermen to take more interest in the process that determines who gets to fish for what, and the how, when and where of it all. I was an early member of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, back when Bob Penney, Bix Bonney and a few others would meet at an Anchorage motel over lunch. For a brief time, I was that group’s membership chairman. Over the years, I helped convince the Alaska Outdoor Council to become more active in the fishing regulatory process.

Slowly, over the years, the worm has turned. In recent years, the increasing number of dip-netters in the personal-use fisheries at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers have added weight to the non-commercial side of things. So-called sport fishing, previously a minor player in the game, has become a force to be reckoned with.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not proud of the way things have turned out. I’m especially disappointed that the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, an organization I once thought was The Answer, has climbed into bed with fishing guides, lodge owners and others who seem determined to wring every buck they can out of our rivers. Both the KRSA and the Kenai Professional Guides Association strongly opposed Robert Ruffner’s run for a fish-board seat.

Trouble is, there seems to be no place for “neutral” members on the Board of Fisheries. Ruffner, although he would in many ways be an ideal board member, is apparently too neutral.

He never had a chance. It’s too bad. Maybe the fish board should have designated seats, with one or two specifically for members with no skin in the game. In a perfect world, the board would have seven Robert Ruffners.

Les Palmer can be reached at

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