Board of Fish nominees move through committee, weigh in on membership

The Alaska House of Representatives’ Resources Committee advanced the three Board of Fisheries nominees to a joint Senate and House hearing with little controversy during its hearing Wednesday.

Gov. Bill Walker has nominated three people for seats on the Board of Fisheries, which has three openings up this year. Two of the nominees are returning members — current Board of Fisheries chairman John Jensen of Petersburg and board member Reed Morisky of Fairbanks. The third is also a returning member, though he’s been off the board for a year now: Fritz Johnson of Dillingham. If confirmed, he would replace current member Sue Jeffrey of Kodiak, who plans to step down.

Jensen has served on the board for 14 years and has a long history of commercial fishing in various areas around the state. Morisky, who has served on the board for four years, owns of a sportfishing guiding service out of Fairbanks. Johnson, who served one term on the board from 2013–2016, is a commercial salmon fishermen in Bristol Bay, the largest sockeye salmon fishery in the state.

All three nominees went through the House Resources Committee with fairly little fanfare Wednesday. Most of the questions from the committee members were about balance in decision-making and sustainable salmon, though one member — Rep. George Rauscher, R-Palmer, wanted to know if the board members thought the Board of Fisheries should expand to nine members from its present seven. Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, has introduced House Bill 88 to increase the membership to nine people.

In the earliest days of the Board of Fish and Game, they had nine members, according to a document submitted to the Legislature by Stutes’ office.

“The first state legislature (January 1959–March 1960) created the Board of Fish and Game and the fish and game advisory committees system,” the document states. “The Board of Fish and Game consisted of nine citizens appointed by the Governor an confirmed by a majority vote of the legislature. In spring 1975, the legislature separated the Board of Fish and Game into separated Boards, which continues to day.”

HB 88 was last heard at the House Fisheries Committee on Feb. 7.

Jensen said he thought the board was well-balanced at present and that adding two more members might make it more difficult to reach a consensus. Since the Legislature approved three new members for the board last spring — Robert Ruffner of Soldotna, Israel Payton of Wasilla and Al Cain of Anchorage — many attendees at the Board of Fisheries’ meetings have commented that the proceedings have been more open and balanced than in the past, when tensions have run high over allocation issues and board process.

“I think we have a good balance,” Jensen said.

Morisky brought up the question of where new board members would come from. The board does not have dedicated seats for either user group or location, but if two more seats were added, the representatives would have to come from somewhere. Locations like Utqiagvik or Tok are not currently represented, but most users are in the Southcentral and coastal regions, so the nominating governor would have to decide where to nominate members from. There’s also the issue of consensus — currently, proposals have to receive four votes to pass, and if two more members were added, they would have to get five votes, Morisky said.

“If you have good selection and due diligence, (I think) seven is enough,” he said. “…If you add two more seats, where would they go?”

Johnson agreed with the two other members.

“Expanding the board to nine members would, again, make it more difficult to reach consensus, and there’s the expense involved, too,” he said. “… I think seven works well, in my opinion.”

The joint House and Senate will vote on all the governor’s nominees at a joint session scheduled for April 13.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at elizabeth.earl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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