No sooner had we recovered from our swoon over the announcement that the Board of Fisheries would meet on the central Kenai Peninsula for the first time in two decades for its 2020 Upper Cook Inlet meeting, than we jumped right in to the next fish board controversy — Gov. Bill Walker’s appointment of Duncan Fields to the board.
First, we’re thrilled to see the fish board meeting on the Kenai Peninsula — something for which we’ve been arguing for years.
The last time the board held its triennial Upper Cook Inlet meeting in the area was 1999. Since then, the meeting, at which the vast majority of proposals deal with Kenai Peninsula fisheries, has been held in Anchorage. While many peninsula residents are able to attend parts of the meeting, very few can stay for the entire two weeks, meaning that the board makes decisions with limited input from those most affected.
We expect that the 2020 meeting will be both productive and well attended, and that board members will get a better appreciation for the wide range of user groups and stakeholders on the Kenai Peninsula.
But like sands through the hourglass, so are appointments to the board. Fields, from Kodiak is one of Gov. Walker’s two nominees to the board — the other is Orville Huntington, who is up for reappointment to the board. Huntington, from Huslia, has a subsistence use background and has drawn little attention from interest groups.
Fields, on the other hand, has a background in commercial fishing and is a former member of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. His appointment, according to some stakeholders, has broken an unwritten rule of fish board politics as the seat to which Fields has been appointed is perceived to be a sport fishing seat. A coalition of sport fishing interest groups, including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, have voiced objections to Fields’ appointment.
Of course, the rule about balancing sport and commercial interests on the fish board is unwritten for a reason: if those who drafted the legislation felt it was good idea to assign seats based on special interests (or for that matter, any Legislature since), they would’ve put it in writing. Instead, the statute governing selections to the Board of Fisheries and Board of Game call for the governor to make appointments “on the basis of interest in public affairs, good judgment, knowledge, and ability in the field of action of the board, and with a view to providing diversity of interest and points of view in the membership. The appointed members shall be residents of the state and shall be appointed without regard to political affiliation or geographical location of residence.”
The governor’s appointments are subject to confirmation by the Legislature, which means fishery management philosophy will be shaped by lawmakers. To ensure good fisheries management, lawmakers will need to do their own homework on the nominees, and not rely on the talking points from special interests. They will also need to do their own homework on the statute governing fish board appointments — and in recent years, when we’ve heard lawmakers parrot arguments made by interest groups that run counter to the statute, we can tell not all of them have studied up.
In his confirmation statement, Fields noted that fish board members are bound to consider all fishermen when making allocation decisions, and to consider conservation first. He wrote that “a commitment to preservation of the resource and equity for all users: subsistence, recreational, commercial and guided sport fisheries stakeholders … has been my practice in my thirty years of service in fisheries policy making.”
We encourage lawmakers to look closely at those 30 years of policy and base their decision whether they feel Fields’ record — and that of Huntington, too — will be a benefit to Alaska’s fisheries as a whole, and not to one user group or another.