It has been 16 years and still the Alaska Board of Fisheries is equivocating about whether to meet on the Kenai Peninsula.
Board members have again been forced to face the issue after board support staff could not find a venue for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, scheduled to take place from Feb. 22-March 9, 2017. During the discussion, board member Fritz Johnson, from Dillingham, said he was reluctant to support a motion that defaulted to accepting Anchorage as the location for the meeting.
“I think in fairness it’s time for a meeting on the Kenai Peninsula.”
Chairman Tom Kluberton, of Talkeetna, brought up the idea of splitting the meeting between Kenai and Anchorage, where proposals would be heard on the peninsula and deliberation would take place in Anchorage. Reed Morisky, of Fairbanks, said Anchorage is a neutral location, mirroring language used by those who submitted public comments against the idea of holding the meeting elsewhere.
“I think everybody agrees on that,” he said.
But Morisky is wrong, not everyone agrees that Anchorage is a neutral location. The Kenai Peninsula Borough and the cities of Homer, Kenai, Seldovia, Seward and Soldotna sent the board a joint resolution asking for the next Upper Cook Inlet board meeting to be held on the peninsula.
Calling Anchorage a middle ground is an argument that doesn’t make sense. People interested in participating in the process can commute from Mat-Su in an hour or less; that option doesn’t exist for central and lower Kenai Peninsula residents.
It is frustrating to again hear extensive debate on the issue and have it left unresolved by a board that regularly meets in communities like Kodiak and Homer when taking up issues in those areas. Naysayers will point out that, on occasion, the board has taken up issues regarding those areas from a meeting point in Anchorage — but the central Kenai Peninsula has been spurned for nearly two decades.
While many peninsula residents are able to take a long weekend to attend a public testimony session, the expense and time required makes it difficult for most to stay to the bitter end. In recent years, Cook Inlet fishermen have estimated that they spend upward of $3,000 on lodging and food during the two-week Cook Inlet meetings in Anchorage. We realize that fishermen who live in the Mat-Su would have to pay something similar to meet on the Kenai Peninsula. But it hardly seems fair that Kenai Peninsula residents should be the only ones to shoulder that financial burden simply to participate in a process that directly affects our community.
During the 2014 meeting on the Upper Cook Inlet, more than 470 public comments were submitted before the meeting and another 270 during the meeting, but relatively few people were on hand to comment during the in-person debate.
And that in-person debate sometimes makes all of the difference. During the breaks between deliberations, board members spend a lot of time with stakeholders in the audience. Additionally, it is rare for decisions to happen on-the-record where people who are telephonically participating can listen and submit comments in a timely fashion. Rather, the board will take up a proposal and, if it is contentious, they’ll call for a recess and canvass audience members for alternatives before convening and stating what they’ve decided. This practice puts users who cannot afford hotel costs, or a lengthy commute to attend the meetings at a severe disadvantage.
Moreover, while users in the Mat-Su and Anchorage area may utilize central and lower Cook Inlet rivers regularly — a point board members repeat when they assert that they’d like to meet in a neutral area — they are hardly as qualified to weigh in on impact to area fisheries as those who live near and observe those fisheries daily.
In some ways, it’s not surprising that the current board could continue to be so cavalier about the pocketbooks of Cook Inlet stakeholders. They’re being paid to attend the meetings both through an annual stipend and a per diem, it may be easy to forget that the users are not. The 2014 Upper Cook Inlet meeting began Super Bowl weekend and rather than letting the 20 members of the public who had signed up to testify finish on Sunday, the board adjourned in the early afternoon, joking about who was going to watch the game and where — leaving those people to find lodging for the evening and potentially skip a work day if they wanted their chance to comment.
It is the responsibility of the board to uphold the public regulatory process of Alaska’s fisheries, to ensure that all members of the public get a chance to weigh in when it could affect them. By purposefully and repeatedly selecting a meeting location that disenfranchises users who do not have the financial means to travel, board members are doing a disservice to those who stand to be most impacted by their regulatory decisions.
The board will again take up the topic during its Bristol Bay finfish meeting, Dec. 2-9 in Anchorage. Public comments will be accepted until Nov. 19.
We urge you to weigh in and let board members know that Kenai Peninsula residents deserve the chance to host a meeting and make their voices heard.