Board of Fisheries appointees move to final confirmation

The Board of Fisheries nominees cleared their last committee hearing and are on their way to final approval from the whole Legislature.

Gov. Bill Walker’s three nominees — Alan Cain of Anchorage, Israel Payton of Wasilla and Robert Ruffner of Soldotna — testified before the Senate State Affairs committee in an early morning hearing on Tuesday. After an approximately hour-long hearing, the three were approved to move on to a final confirmation hearing on Friday.

Most of the attention was focused on Ruffner, who faced tough opposition from the State Affairs committee during his ultimately unsuccessful Board of Fisheries confirmation process last year. This year, Sen. Bill Stolze (R-Chugiak) and Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage), both of whom argued vocally against Ruffner last year, said they intend to vote in favor of all three nominees.

“It’s never been comfortable, engaging in these battles,” Stolze said to Ruffner during the hearing. “I am intending to cast my vote for you this time.”

Wielechowski also said he intends to cast his vote for all three, urging them to consider the needs of the residents of Southcentral Alaska, where there is great demand for access to personal use and sportfishing fisheries, in their decisions on the Board of Fisheries.

“I just really urge you all to consider that — consider the needs of hundreds of thousands of Alaskans who like to live that lifestyle,” Wielechowski said. “That’s an important issue. You’re our proxy when you go to vote. I urge you to strongly consider the needs of my constituents and the needs of Southcentral when you go to vote.”

Most of the questions from the committee members focused on Upper Cook Inlet allocation issues. All three nominees were asked for their opinion about the conservation corridors, a regulation put in place by the Board of Fisheries in the 2014 Upper Cook Inlet cycle as a method to control how many sockeye and coho salmon are harvested by the drift gillnet fleet.

Cain, a former Alaska Wildlife Trooper, said he recognized not everyone was happy with the conservation corridors but that they are one of the tools the board currently uses to help distribute salmon evenly in Cook Inlet. He said he would be willing to consider new options if they were suggested.

When asked by Sen. Charlie Huggins (R-Wasilla) what he thought of the fisheries genetics studies being conducted across the state, Cain said he supports them and wants to see them better funded in the future.

“The way I feel about them is that they’re extremely valuable,” Cain said. “I think those DNA analyses are important — I think they should be better funded, and it gives us a better idea of where fish are.”

Payton said he also supports the conservation corridors and that since their implementation, returns have improved in the Mat-Su streams. He said he supports the genetics studies being done across the state as well, and further studies might be able to help identify what is impacting the runs, particularly for king salmon.

“The king salmon is kind of down across the state,” Payton said. “It could be something else we just don’t understand.”

Ruffner faced more questions than Cain or Payton, ranging in topic from the king salmon harvest by the East Side setnet fishery to management tactics for king salmon on the Kenai River. Addressing management, he said he would not be afraid to shut down fisheries on conservation concerns. He did voice concerns about cuts to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game’s budget for management purposes.

“One of the things I am nervous about is watching the reductions in Fish and Game’s budget,” Ruffner said. “That is likely to err on the side of making us conservative when it comes to the management of weak stocks.”

Two members of the public testified on Ruffner’s behalf. Dwight Kramer, a Kenai Peninsula resident and a representative of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, said the group — which represents private sport anglers on the Kenai Peninsula — supported all three candidates.

Rick Koch, the city manager for Kenai, also testified in favor of all three nominees. He said he supports Ruffner because “he puts the resource first.”

“That’s the kind of person I would like to see represent the interest of the state on the Board of Fish,” Koch said. “I would like to express both my support and the support of the City of Kenai for Mr. Payton and Mr. Cain as well. They both appear, based on my research, to be positive additions to the Board of Fish.”

The Legislature is scheduled to consider confirmations for all the governor’s appointees at 11 a.m. Friday.

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

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