Conflict sparks over Walker’s fish board appointment

Sportfishing groups are raising a hue and cry about Gov. Bill Walker’s proposed appointee to the Board of Fisheries.

Current board member Al Cain of Anchorage, who has served on the board since 2016, does not plan to seek reappointment. Walker nominated Duncan Fields, a Kodiak commercial salmon fisherman and former member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, to replace him, on Friday.

Almost immediately, a broad coalition of sportfishing interest groups sent a letter to the Legislature, objecting because of Fields’ background in commercial fishing. A March 19 letter to the Legislature signed by groups including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Alaska Charter Association and the Alaska Outdoor Council states that Fields’ appointment would unbalance the sportfishing and commercial fishing representation and leave Anchorage without a representative.

“Members of the Board are chosen by the Governor and confirmed by the Legislature based on good judgment, interest in public affairs, knowledge and ability,” the letter states. “A well-balanced Board also represents a diversity of interest and points of view. Although not required by statute, geographic representation has been a hallmark of this process.”

The group called for legislators to reject Fields’ nomination.

The Board of Fisheries does not have designated seats, and the composition has fluctuated over time. Many of the members participate in multiple types of fisheries. Currently, two members of the board hold Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission permits — chairman John Jensen and member Fritz Johnson — while one, board member Reed Morisky, is an active fishing guide. Members Israel Payton, Robert Ruffner and Al Cain have all said they participate in sport fishing but do not guide, and member Orville Huntington comes from a subsistence background from Huslia, a community on the Koyukuk River in the Interior.

In 2015, the Kenai River Sportfishing Association led an effort to defeat Walker’s initial nomination of Ruffner to serve on the board, voicing concerns about his commercial fishing interests. Ruffner has said he has never been employed in commercial fishing.

The Board of Fisheries oversees the majority of regulations over salmon fisheries in the state of Alaska, including allocation decisions. The confirmation of nominees are notoriously contentious. The last round of confirmations was an exception — due to several resignations, Walker appointed three members in one session, covering Wasilla, Anchorage and the Kenai Peninsula, the three main population areas of Cook Inlet, which tends to be the most contentious of the managed salmon fisheries in Alaska.

Support for Fields among letters submitted to the Legislature is largely split along user group lines. One individual sportfisherman from Sterling, Bill Eckhardt, submitted a letter with similar concerns to the sportfishing groups’ concerns.

Several individual commercial fishermen and one charter boat captain from Old Harbor submitted letters of support, as did the statewide commercial fishing group the United Fishermen of Alaska and the Homer-based North Pacific Fisheries Association.

“Mr. Fields has worked as a commercial fisherman for nearly 58 years, participating in salmon, herring, crab, halibut and codfish, which has given him a vast knowledge of commercial fisheries,” the group wrote. “… Kodiak fisheries have many complex issues and it would be beneficial to the BOF to have someone from Kodiak who understands these fisheries.”

North Pacific Fishery Association President Malcom Milne said he didn’t see Fields’ appointment as unbalancing the board. The board doesn’t have designated seats anyway, and even with Fields’ appointment, there would only be three CFEC permit holders on the board. Fields has a good background in balancing fisheries issues as well, Milne said.

“The funny thing is, when we were at the (North Pacific Fishery Management Council) and I first met Duncan in 2010 or so, working on halibut issues … I felt like Duncan was more on the side of the charter guys than the commercial guys at the time,” he said. “… I think he ended up helping hammer out what I felt was at the time a good compromise.”

Fields wrote in his confirmation statement submitted to the Legislature that he was interested in several issues facing the Board of Fisheries for the next several years, including the North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s ongoing development of a Fishery Management Plan for Cook Inlet salmon fisheries, the expanding quotas for fisheries in state waters, threats facing sea lions and salmon, ongoing habitat issues and revising the local advisory committee system.

He noted that the Board of Fisheries members are bound to follow an allocation policy to consider all fishermen in allocation decisions and to consider conservation first.

“This is on the only way fisheries can be successfully managed,” he wrote. “Not by ‘identity politics’ but by a commitment to preservation of the resource and equity for all users: subsistence, recreational, commercial and guided sport fisheries stakeholders. This has been my practice in my thirty years of service in fisheries policy making.”

Fields and Huntington, who is also up for reappointment, were due to be considered in a hearing before the Senate State Affairs Committee on Tuesday but the hearing was rescheduled for Thursday. Only Huntington will appear on the Thursday hearing, though, as Fields is out of the country and will be considered at a future Senate State Affairs Committee hearing.

Reach Elizabeth Earl at eearl@peninsulaclarion.com.

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