Local governments try again for central peninsula fish board meeting

Editor’s note: This story has been changed to clarify the Board of Fish’s meeting location decision at their October 2017 worksession.

Advocates are again seeking to convince the state’s Board of Fisheries to include the Kenai Peninsula in a schedule of locations for its triennial Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting.

The meeting, at which the seven Board of Fisheries members make decisions about commercial, subsistence, and personal use fisheries in the Upper Cook Inlet management area, was last held in the Kenai-Soldotna area in 1999. Since then, the approximately 14-day meeting has been taken place every three years in Anchorage.

Three local government bodies — the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly and the Soldotna and Kenai city councils — are scheduled to take up a joint resolution in support of a proposal submitted to the Board of Fisheries by member Alan Cain that would rotate meeting locations between Kenai-Soldotna, Palmer-Wasilla and Anchorage. The board will vote on it at their Statewide Dungeness Crab, Shrimp, and Miscellaneous Shellfish meeting on March 6-9 in Anchorage. If the proposal passes, the first meeting would take place in the Kenai-Soldotna area in 2020.

“The Alaska Board of Fisheries notes that one of the most divisive issues it faces almost every year is not a regulatory subject, but rather where to hold the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meeting,” Cain wrote in his policy proposal.

Since the contentious 1999 meeting in Soldotna — at which some board members said they were harassed and threatened — the board’s majority have argued that holding a meeting outside Anchorage, where most of the board’s staff lives and more meeting space is available, would be too expensive. Despite several past requests from local governments and individuals, the closest the board has come to a central peninsula meeting was a three-day work session in Soldotna in October 2016.

At Wednesday’s Kenai City Council meeting, members authorized Kenai mayor Brian Gabriel to sign a joint resolution in support of Cain’s proposal. The resolution is also scheduled to be offered for signatures from Soldotna Mayor Nels Anderson on Feb. 14 and Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly President Wayne Ogle on February 20.

Board of Fisheries member Robert Ruffner, a Soldotna resident and advocate of a local meeting, said a majority of those affected by the decisions made at the Upper Cook Inlet Finfish meetings are Kenai Peninsula residents.

“By the time the 2020 meeting comes up, it will be more than a generation, if you consider a generation 20 years,” Ruffner said. “A whole generation’s gone by where we haven’t a meeting in the Kenai-Soldotna area. By just about any measure you want to use — the public comments, the proposals, the geography that’s affected by the proposals — by far the margin is coming out of the Kenai-Soldotna area. And it doesn’t seem reasonable that we don’t want to hold our meeting where most of those things are coming from.”

Anchorage meetings make peninsula residents less able to participate in the board’s decisions, advocates of a Kenai-Soldotna meeting have said. The joint resolution from Kenai, Soldotna, and the borough states that “the costs and travel time to attend meetings outside the Kenai Peninsula pose a significant burden to local residents, limiting participation and the Board ofFisheries’ ability to benefit from local knowledge.”

The board most recently voted on the meeting location during a worksession on Oct. 19, 2017, when Ruffner proposed moving the Anchorage-scheduled meeting to the Central Kenai Peninsula. The board voted 4-3 in favor of Anchorage, with Ruffner, Cane, and board member Fritz Johnson opposed. 

As he did in the October worksession, Ruffner reiterated in a Wednesday interview that a local meeting would have benefits for the board outside its formal regulatory work.

“The thing we miss out on by having the meeting in Anchorage is that board members don’t get a chance to interact with just the everyday people,” Ruffner said. “It’s interesting that when you go to a different place, and you go out to a brewpub or anything and you sit down, you hear people talk about fish. They don’t necessarily even know you’re part of a regulatory process, but I think it’s important to hear from just the average person how fish affects their quality of life and the economy. It’s nice when we go to a different community and hear those questions outside of the regular process.”

Reach Ben Boettger at ben.boettger@peninsulaclarion.com.

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