Attendees of various user groups crowd near the front of the room during a break at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 in Anchorage, Alaska. (DJ Summers/Alaska Journal of Commerce)

Attendees of various user groups crowd near the front of the room during a break at the Board of Fisheries’ Upper Cook Inlet meeting Tuesday, Feb. 28, 2017 in Anchorage, Alaska. (DJ Summers/Alaska Journal of Commerce)

Board of Fish to meet on peninsula in 2020

Central Kenai Peninsula fishermen will get to stay at home for the 2020 Board of Fisheries meeting.

For the first time in 20 years, the Board of Fisheries agreed to hold a full Upper Cook Inlet finfish board meeting in the central peninsula area. It’s a longtime talking point for central peninsula governments and fishermen who have had to travel to Anchorage for the notoriously long and politically rife meetings since 1999. The board has held worksessions on the peninsula since then, most recently in 2016, but not a full deliberative board meeting.

The board approved the location in a 4-2 vote, with member Israel Payton absent, during its meeting Friday in Anchorage. The board had previously decided to continue holding its meetings in Anchorage but reopened the discussion after requests from Kenai Peninsula local governments and the public, said Board of Fisheries Chairman John Jensen.

“If I remember right, we’ve always discussed it twice or thrice every cycle, so this isn’t out of the ordinary,” he said.

Board member Al Cain proposed a system for rotating the meeting locations among the three major communities of Upper Cook Inlet — Anchorage, Palmer/Wasilla and Kenai/Soldotna. One of the goals was to help alleviate some of the political tension arriving every time the board members decide where to host a meeting, but the other has to do with accessibility to young people, Cain said at the meeting.

“All the times that we’ve gone to areas outside of Anchorage, we seem to have participation by young folk, and that is a tremendous reason for me to suggest what will probably be added expense and inconvenience, to make this meeting format available to young folk and hopefully interest them in participating,” he said.

Typically, the Upper Cook Inlet board meetings last about 14 days, running daily from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. or longer. Because of the structure of the meetings with open committee discussions, public comment and board deliberations, it can be hard to tell when a particular subject will come up in the discussions, so planning a one-day trip from a community to participate can be challenging. Additionally, without evening meetings, it can be hard for younger people who work full-time winter jobs to take time off to participate.

There’s also the issue of expense. Hotel rooms in Anchorage for multiple days can be expensive, not counting food and travel. That’s been an ongoing talking point for those arguing for central peninsula meeting.

Most of the people participating in the Upper Cook Inlet meetings are from the Kenai Peninsula anyway, a point board member Reed Morisky brought up. The travel doesn’t seem to be inhibiting peninsula representation when the meetings are in Anchorage, he said. He and Jensen voted no on Cain’s proposal.

“I think most would agree that most attendees by percentage, it’s predominately folks from the peninsula,” he said. “As far as representation, I believe it is occurring at the UCI meetings when they are held in Anchorage.”

Every year, local governments on the central Kenai Peninsula write letters to the Board of Fisheries to ask the members to hold a meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula. In 2015, the local governments banded together to offer the board free coffee, transportation and meeting space as an incentive to come to the peninsula, an offer the board declined.

Board member Robert Ruffner said one of the reasons the local governments have been plying for a meeting on the central peninsula is because of the impacts of the fisheries on the community at large. The personal-use dipnet fishery on the Kenai River particularly, established by the Board of Fisheries, has a strong effect on the communities every year and is one of the reasons the local governments have asked for the Board of Fisheries to host a meeting in person on the peninsula.

He added that the communities have adjusted to the fisheries on the peninsula and not all the comments are likely to be negative.

“It hasn’t happened for a long time and I think that may be good because I think our community has adjusted to the fisheries that occur on the Kenai Peninsula,” he said. “What I anticipate you’ll hear is that you’ll hear some of the negative concerns you might expect, but I think you’ll also hear something different now and that’s that there’s some very positive effects that are starting to occur now that we’ve had time to adjust to the fisheries that are down there. I would implore board members to please consider that.”

Board member Orville Huntington said he didn’t have a stake in where the Upper Cook Inlet meetings were held personally but liked the idea of the board getting out to communities when possible. He said he would have preferred to see Palmer/Wasilla go first in the cycle, as that community has not had a board meeting hosted locally, but would support the rotation idea.

“I like member Cain’s idea, and I’ll be in support of it for no other reason than fairness and everyone having a chance to hold a meeting in a local place where they fish,” he said.

The politicization of the meeting location has been a consequence of the ongoing allocation disagreements between user groups in Upper Cook Inlet. With a large commercial fishing fleet and half the state’s population, much of which participates in sport and personal-use fishing, conflicts over salmon allocation arise every year. Many of the public comments supported having a meeting in the central peninsula, but others didn’t. The Kenai River Professional Guides Association preferred to leave the meeting where it was, said board president Ray DeBardelaben during public testimony on Tuesday.

“The wheel’s not broke — leave it alone, have the meeting in Anchorage,” he said.

The Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, a trade group representing Cook Inlet east side commercial set gillnet permit holders, took the opposite stance, arguing that by keeping the meetings in Anchorage, the board misses out on valuable community input from peninsula residents.

“For over a decade and a half the people of the Kenai Peninsula have been marginalized, excluded from the Board of Fish process by distance, cost and inconvenience … please don’t let that continue,” wrote KPFA board president Andy Hall in a letter to the Board of Fisheries.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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