Les Palmer: Changing the process

Author’s note: The Clarion previously published the following column on Mar. 25, 1994. Nothing has changed except the economic value of sport fishing for salmon in Cook Inlet and adjacent waters, which now exceeds the economic value of the Cook Inlet commercial salmon harvest. Twenty years have passed, and special interests continue to control how the resource is managed. — LP

If present legislation to give more Cook Inlet red salmon to anglers does nothing else, it spotlights the seriously flawed way Alaska allocates fisheries resources. That sport fishermen felt it necessary to go to the legislature was a sure sign of big problems.

The problems stem from the domination of our fisheries regulatory process by special interests. Not surprisingly, these same special interests control the legislature, and always have.

In 1949, when the Territorial Legislature created the first Alaska Fisheries Board, commercial fishing interests were about the only interests in sight. All five of those early-day board members were commercially oriented.

In 1957, when the legislature created the Alaska Fish and Game Commission, the seven members included one commercial fishermen from each of three regions, one fish processor, one sport fisherman, one hunter, and one trapper. Even if the fisherman, the hunter and the trapper agreed on an issue, the commercials still had them out-voted.

In 1975, the legislature created the present Board of Fisheries. Instead of designating board seats by special interest groups, the new law said the seven board members “…shall be appointed without regard to political affiliation or geographical location of residence… .”

Has this “improved” law brought equity to the board?

No. Governors have continued to appoint candidates representing special interests to the board, and legislators have continued to confirm them. In fact, appointing special interests is now expected of politicians, who even promise in election-campaigns to “balance the board.”

But what is balance? The most recent attempt at balance, by Governor Hickel, has resulted in a board of three commercial fishermen, three sport fishermen, and one subsistence fisherman who is also a commercial fisherman. This, some would say, is a balanced board.

Commercial interests argue that the board should be weighted in their favor, since the importance of jobs and the monetary value of commercial catches obviously exceed the importance of mere sport.

Sport interests argue that the board should be weighted in their favor, because their gamefish are also their foodfish, and sport fishing is coming into its own, economically, and sport users outnumber all others.

Subsistence interests argue that the board should be weighted in their favor, because subsistence has both legal and moral priority over all other uses.

Which interest is most right? All of them? None of them?

Unfortunately, the interest with the most money has always been “right.” Right now, that’s the commercials. But it wouldn’t surprise me to see sport interests dominating the Board of Fisheries within a year or two. The economic value of a salmon caught on hook and line already far exceeds the value of one in a gill net, and the gap grows daily. Each year, tourism puts more Alaskans to work and brings in more “outside” dollars.

But while a board controlled by sport-fishing interests is pleasant to contemplate, it wouldn’t be ideal. So long as any special interest group makes regulatory decisions affecting commonly owned resources, the resources are in jeopardy, and we’re all losers. Imagine a not-far-off future with Big Tourism holding two or three seats on the board. Would that be any better for the resource than commercial fishing?

I don’t think so. I think a better idea is to keep the present lay, volunteer status of board members, but require them to have absolutely no economic or political interest in fisheries.

Commercial fishermen reading this will say board members need fishing experience before they’re smart enough to sit on the board. Nonsense, I say. What board members don’t need is the bias and conflicts of interest that come with ownership of limited-entry permits. They can get their “experience” from advisory boards, and their technical knowledge from Department of Fish and Game staff.

Legislators who want to avoid future allocation battles should write laws that change the way Board of Fisheries members are chosen. The present board makeup, aside from being unconstitutional, corrupts all who use it to their advantage. Worse, it has the potential to endanger our fisheries resources. It’s high time it was changed.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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