Fish board nominees, legislators more cordial in 2016

The 2016 Board of Fisheries appointees represent no one, and everyone, they insist.

2015 and 2016 took a toll on fisheries leadership. The last 12 months include one botched interview, one forced resignation, three failed nominations — including one denied by the Walker Administration — a fistful of felony charges, and two recent resignations — one of which chairman Tom Kluberton said comes from political burnout and stress, the other, Bob Mumford, coming before he even had the chance to be confirmed by the Legislature.

Gear group and regional allegiance bubbled underneath it all, and what the board should look like to best reflect them all. This year, Gov. Bill Walker’s appointees are eager to explain what little bias they carry onto a board that oversees Alaska’s largest source of private employment. Legislators offer none of the fire seen last year, public comments are gentle, and none of last year’s regional and gear group tensions have boiled over.

The Senate Resources Committee forwarded Israel Payton on March 21 to a joint session hearing, moving the Mat-Su resident one step closer to being confirmed as a board member.

Payton, along with former Alaska Wildlife Trooper Al Cain and Kenai area conservationist Robert Ruffner, was nominated to fill one of three available positions on the board left by the departures of Kluberton, Mumford, and Fritz Johnson.

This leaves Bristol Bay without a representative. Bay groups are angry, but so far haven’t led the same kind of campaign that derailed board nominations last year.

Payton came out of the gate speaking directly of a lack of allegiance to user groups, gear types, and regions, describing a good board member as neutral above all else.

A good board member, he said, “should be careful not to be seen as one user’s advocate,” and “realize that board members do not represent any specific interest group, fishery, but represent all Alaskans equally, and we all have very unique differences and perspectives.”

Payton’s fisheries involvement extends to subsistence and sport, and he currently serves on the Board of Fisheries’ Mat-Su Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

The committee, public commentators, and Payton himself focused mostly on affiliation, specifically, which if any he holds.

Payton insists his time as a sportfishing guide has no bearing on his Board of Fisheries plans.

“I’ve worked as a sportfishing guide in the past,” said Payton, “but it’s been 11 years since I’ve made any money related to any type of fisheries resource, and it does not define who I am or how I will vote.”

Though he has little direct commercial fishing experience, Payton claims he will benefit commercial fisheries. Without any connections, he has no loyalties or prejudices.

“I will not bring any preconceived ideas or conflicts between different commercial users or fisheries,” he said.

Sen. Pete Micciche, R-Soldotna, the only committee member to question Payton, probed for Payton’s backbone, asking whether he would have trouble making tough allocative calls when needed.

“You know the pressure that comes on you in the Board of Fisheries,” Micciche said. “Do you have any hesitation on limiting harvest opportunities to any or all of the four user groups to meet the minimum standard yield requirement?”

Payton said his alliance was to Alaska’s Constitution first, not to user groups.

“If there’s a biological concern, and there’s a resource in crisis or not meeting the MSY, I think that it’s time to act accordingly,” he said. “I realize the amount of pressure that the commissioners and managers currently face when they do things like emergency orders, but we are mandated by the statues, by the Legislature, and we have to follow it.”

In the midst of the interview, Payton acknowledged the pressure Micciche spoke about.

“I would be lying if I told you I wasn’t nervous about serving on this board,” he said, but that he could only try.

Along with the committee itself, the public had little input. Only three people called in to the committee, two in support of Payton and one neutral.

A March 10 hearing was similarly mild compared to last year. A Senate Committee Hearing for Al Cain and Robert Ruffner met calm receptions from Sens. Bill Wielechowski, D-Anchorage, and Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak.

Both senators counted among the most vociferous of Ruffner’s critics during his 2015 confirmation hearing, but recanted their earlier opposition. In 2015, they said, Walker had nominated Ruffner to fill a seat they feel sportfishermen had traditionally held. This time around, that’s not a problem.

Both Stoltze and Wielechowski said they were glad to see Ruffner back and nominated for a commercial fisherman’s spot. The senators, representing the largely sportfishing and personal use interests of Southcentral Alaska’s largest urban population centers, had opposed Ruffner’s appointment on the grounds that it should go to an Anchorage resident and a sportfisherman.

Wielechowski acknowledged that Ruffner’s failed confirmation — the joint committee failed to confirm him by a single vote — had less to do with Ruffner’s undisputed credentials and more to do with fish politics.

“Last year was rough and it really had nothing to do with you at all, it was just simply concern over the seat designation,” Wielechowski said.

“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.”

Ruffner, former executive director of the habitat restoration-focused Kenai Watershed Forum, reaffirmed what he’d said last year. The health of the fish and habitat are first and foremost in his mind.

Likewise, Cain responded to committee questions maintaining a neutral position in the endless Cook Inlet fisheries allocation battles.

“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 told the committee. “That is why I’m not opposed to listening to suggested changes for any user group.”

DJ Summers can be reached at daniel.summers@alaskajournal.com.

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