When the Alaska Board of Fisheries says it wants to meet in a “neutral” location, just what does that mean?
Last week, the board voted to hold its 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage. The board considers Upper Cook Inlet issues on a three-year cycle, and despite the fact that the vast majority of proposals — and people impacted by them — have to do with the central Kenai Peninsula, the board has not met here since 1999.
This time, as it has in recent years, board members argued for a “neutral” location for the meeting. Quite frankly, we don’t think the board understands what “neutral” means.
Our understanding of “neutral” venue would be one to which all stakeholders have equal access — and therefore, equal access to the process.
For Kenai Peninsula residents, access to an Anchorage meeting is unequal; in fact, peninsula residents who wish to participate in the fish board process find themselves at a financial and logistical disadvantage.
Sure, many Kenai Peninsula residents make a long weekend of the opening days of the meeting to provide public testimony. But most can’t afford to stay in Anchorage for the entirety of the meeting, which runs for two weeks. And while public testimony at the beginning of the meeting is important, the board also solicits comment from those in attendance throughout the meeting — including the closing days of the meeting, when decisions are being made, by which point, most of the people left to participate represent organizations that are paying them to be there.
When it comes to what is supposed to be a shining example of an open public process, that hardly sounds “neutral” to us.
No, what members of the fish board seem to mean when they call for a “neutral” location is one in which their is no tension between stakeholders. Unfortunately, when it comes to Cook Inlet fisheries, such a place doesn’t exist. “Neutral” might as well be Never Never Land.
Needless to say, while it was a 4-3 vote, we’re disappointed that the fish board has again chosen not to meet in the Kenai-Soldotna area. The Kenai River is the epicenter of fishing in Cook Inlet, and the central peninsula is home to commercial set- and drift-netters, sport fishing guides, recreational anglers, personal-use and subsistence fisheries.
By choosing a meeting location at which not all of those stakeholders can fully participate, the board has made the process fundamentally unfair, which is as far away from “neutral” as a regulatory process can be.