Board of Fisheries appointees move toward confirmation

This time around, it seems like the fire opposing Robert Ruffner’s appointment to the Board of Fisheries has been beaten back.

Ruffner, a Soldotna resident and former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, has been nominated for a second time for a seat on the board governing the state’s fisheries. He was first nominated in March 2015 and met with scalding rebuttals, leading to a failure to be confirmed by the Legislature in April 2015.

However, former Board of Fisheries member Bob Mumford, who was Gov. Bill Walker’s appointee to fill the seat Ruffner had originally been nominated to, resigned last month. Walker asked Ruffner if he would be willing to go through the process again.

Ruffner’s first hearing before the Senate Resources Committee on Wednesday was much shorter and less heated than last year. Only six people testified, four in favor and two against his nomination. Four of the six were from Cook Inlet; the other two were from the Bristol Bay region.

After an hour-long hearing, the Senate Resources Committee concluded with the recommendation that the confirmations be sent to the joint House of Representatives and Senate for final approval. The recommendation does not ensure supporting votes from any committee members, and the State Affairs Committee will also review the appointees.

The opposition from the Legislative side was limited as well. The main objection in 2015 was that Ruffner was appointed to a seat that had been traditionally held by sportfishing interests and that his supporters were largely commercial fishing interest groups.

One of the main objectors last year, Sen. Bill Stolze (R-Chugiak), said he would not oppose Ruffner’s appointment this time around because the seat he is interviewing for is traditionally a commercial seat.

“I’m certainly more open to this entry now that you’re applying for a different seat,” Stolze said. “The seat you are applying for is traditionally thought to be a commercial seat — it’s Bristol Bay.”

Sen. Bill Wielechowski (D-Anchorage) said he was glad to see Ruffner back now that he was applying for a different seat.

“I’m glad to see you back at it — I really am,” Wielechowski said during the meeting. “Last year was rough and it really had nothing to do with you at all, it was just simply concern over the seat designation. I thought you were immensely qualified. … I have every intention of supporting you at this point.”

The senators also interviewed Al Cain, a former Alaska State Trooper from Anchorage, who the governor appointed at the same time as Ruffner. Cain said he has been involved with the Board of Fisheries’ process for years and hopes he would be fair to all user groups. When asked about the personal use fishery, he said he did not oppose any restrictions out of hand but would listen to all arguments for an against before making a decision.

“I’d like to hear input on all sides, and if we can improve something, make something more sustainable, I’m not interested in disenfranchising any user group or individual but seeing that the allocations … are as equally distributed as they can be is my goal,” Cain said during the hearing. “That is why I’m not opposed to listening to suggested changes for any user group.”

Most of the fishery-specific questions from the senators hovered around Cook Inlet issues. Ruffner and Cain agreed on some issues, such as supporting the conservation corridor issue that closed off an area of the commercial drift gillnet fishery to allow for sockeye and coho passage in upper Cook Inlet. They both said they would try to listen and reconcile the disagreements between the user groups, particularly in the Cook Inlet area.

Ruffner said he was most familiar with the salmon issues in Cook Inlet but was looking forward to learning about the other fisheries across the state.

“The Board of Fisheries has a tremendous job with a multi-billion dollar industry working across the entire state,” Ruffner said during the hearing. “That’s one of my motivations for wanting to do this, is to learn a little bit more about the other parts of the state I’m not as familiar with.”

Sen. Peter Micciche, who represents the central Kenai Peninsula, said he plans to support all three nominees — Ruffner, Cain and Israel Payton of Wasilla.

He said this was a far less controversial hearing than many of the Board of Fisheries confirmations he had seen in the past, possibly because the changing of seats defused the arguments against Ruffner and he had given extensive testimony last year.

“I think you have three very credible, experienced individuals that will be better prepared to communicate the decisionmaking processes that occurs on the board,” Micciche said. “I’m supporting board members who put fish first.”

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

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