Les Palmer: Fish board politics

I get an anxious feeling whenever state legislators talk about fishing, so I’ve been anxious lately.

Most recently, it happened during “Fish Week,”when user-groups and state agencies were invited to educate the Senate Resources Committee about Cook Inlet fisheries. On the surface, it seemed like a good idea. Then again, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing.

I worry about what Legislators might do to the Alaska Board of Fisheries. This 7-member board develops fishery-management policy, makes allocative decisions and sets seasons, bag limits and methods and means for the state’s sport, guided sport, personal-use and commercial fisheries. It make the rules, so it’s an easy target for criticism.

The Alaska Board of Fisheries regulation-making process may well be the most open-to-public-scrutiny process of its kind anywhere. State Senator Cathy Giessel has been asking her constituents about a “professional” board. Because all proposals involve allocation, I wouldn’t want a group of biologists or paid board members making allocation decisions. It’s far better to have board members who are involved in fishing, members to whom users can relate, than to have paid employees. Who would hire them? What would it take to fire them?

I can’t find much fault with the existing process. Proposing a regulation is easy, and anyone can submit one or more proposals. Proposals are first discussed at Fish and Game Advisory Committee meetings. Advisory committees are members of communities, elected by area residents. On the Kenai Peninsula, committees are in Homer, Seldovia, Ninilchik, Seward, Cooper Landing and Kenai/Soldotna. Advisory committees provide a local forum for the public to address fish, wildlife and habitat issues. It’s local, grass-roots government. Some good ideas take root at these meetings, and the committees pass on their recommendations to the Board of Fisheries.

The governor appoints Board of Fisheries members, and these appointments have to be confirmed by the Legislature. Board members serve 3-year terms. The board meets once every three years for each region. All advisory committee meetings and board meetings are open to the public, and there is always ample time for public comment.

If you want openness in government, the present fish-board process is it. And yet, some legislator or governor is always trying to “improve” it. Some of them would no doubt prefer for the fish board to meet behind closed doors, where members can be manipulated like certain legislators in the not-too-distant past.

Recently, on KSRM radio’s “Sound Off” program, Representative Mike Chenault mentioned that he was working on legislation that dealt with the Board of Fisheries. “It will be controversial,” he added. Cook Inlet has long been the most contentious fishery in the state, and it’s in Chenault’s district. With poor king salmon runs severely impacting commercial sockeye fishing in the inlet in recent years, I’m sure he’s had no end of something-has-got-to-be-done complaints from constituents. What can he do to help?

For one thing, he could try to put another commercial fisherman on the board. The last time I remember Chenault being involved with the Board of Fisheries was when he supported East-side set-netter Brent Johnson for the board. I told Chenault that was a bad idea, and that Johnson couldn’t possibly be impartial when considering allocative proposals, but he stood his ground. Johnson ended up not getting enough votes to be confirmed, but Chenault’s actions leave me wondering about his present intentions.

Twenty-five years ago, commercial fishing interests dominated the fish-board. It was an ugly process to watch. In 1990, five of the seven members were “commercial.” They killed almost every proposal that benefitted anything other than commercial fishing in the Cook Inlet region.

It’s different now, and much more fair and equitable. Over the past 30 years, sport fishing has become a strong player in fish politics, and personal-use and subsistence users have their figurative nets in the political water. Of the current board members, Karl Johnston, Tom Kluberton and Reed Morisky are mainly in the sport-fishing camp, while John Jensen, Fritz Johnson and Sue Jeffrey are commercial fishermen, and Orville Huntington advocates for subsistence. Governor Parnell recently reappointed Morisky, Jeffreys and Jensen. If Legislators don’t confirm Morisky, and if the Governor were to appoint another commercial fisherman to the board, it could tilt the board in favor of commercial-fishing interests again.

The current board is as close to being fairly balanced as it has ever been, which is a good thing for all concerned. The last thing we need is for the Legislature to upset the balance.

I’m going to feel anxious until the House and Senate meet in a joint session on April 16, and vote whether or not to confirm Morisky’s nomination.

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

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