House Fisheries Committee quiet on appointees

Gov. Bill Walker’s appointees to the Board of Fisheries moved forward again through relatively calm waters in the House Fisheries Committee on Thursday.

The committee heard testimony from appointee Israel Payton of Wasilla, a former sportfishing guide and member of the Mat-Su Advisory Committee to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and from Robert Ruffner, a Soldotna resident and the former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum. Both testified for less than 10 minutes and received no questions from members of the committee.

Payton said he grew up living a subsistence lifestyle in the rural village of Skwentna. He said he has traveled all over the state through his work in aviation and understands many of the issues in fisheries statewide. He said he strongly supports the Board of Fisheries process and wants to encourage more people to participate.

“I think the Fish and Game process is very unique to Alaska,” Payton said during his testimony. “I believe the process is very unique and special and the best in any of the other states.”

Ruffner, who also testified before the Senate Resources Committee on March 9, faced no questions from the House Fisheries Committee. Last year, multiple committee members weighed in on his appointment in and out of the meeting and members of the public commented on Ruffner’s appointment. This year, the only questions were from the public.

Several Cook Inlet commercial fishermen caused the only stir, calling for someone with more commercial fishing experience to be appointed to the board. Richard McGahan Sr., a Nikiski resident and current setnetter, said he opposed Payton because of his history in sportfishing and called for someone with a science background to be appointed to the board.

“I think we need a biologist,” McGahan said. “We need someone with some science on this board.”

He said he supported Ruffner, though Ruffner has testified that he only has two days of commercial fishing experience. Ruffner is a good choice because he is “interested in the river systems, he’s interested in the escapement goals, and that’s what we need,” McGahan said.

One man testified from Wasilla in support of Payton, and the other two speakers were both commercial fishermen from Cook Inlet. Both called for an appointee with more commercial fishing history and a scientific background to the board.

Rep. Charisse Millett, R-Anchorage, questioned those testifying about what kind of representative they were calling for: a regional representative, a commercial fisherman or a biologist.

“Are you opposed to Israel Payton because he’s not a biologist, or because he’s not from Cook Inlet?” she asked them. “Is it mostly the regional dispute or the lack of scientific background or both?”

Paul Shadura, a Cook Inlet setnetter, said he appreciated Walker’s attempt to provide a balanced board with his appointees but wanted someone to have the commercial fishing experience, regardless of where he or she was from, so the board would have the best insight possible.

“I am looking for the expertise that is so important to the state,” Shadura said in his testimony. “The Legislature is looking at us for curing the state’s funding problems. The commercial fishing knowledge and history is so important.”

Several of those testifying expressed frustration over the commercial fishing closures in Cook Inlet in the last few years. Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten, who attended the hearing, responded to a question from Millett about the Board of Fisheries’ power over management and fishing openings and closures.

“The Board of Fisheries describes and very carefully writes a management plan that we try to follow to the letter,” Cotten said.

The House Fisheries Committee approved the two appointees and forwarded them for approval to a joint session of the House and Senate for confirmation, which is currently scheduled for at 11 a.m. on April 15 according to the legislative calendar.

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

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