The Alaska Board of Fisheries met in Soldotna, and nothing happened.
Actually, that’s not quite true. During its three-day work session in Soldotna, the board took public testimony and considered a stack of agenda change requests and non-regulatory proposals.
What didn’t happen were all those things cited as reasons for the board not to meet on the peninsula in the past. Comment and debate were civil. People from other parts of the state, including the Mat-Su, were able to testify. The meeting space at the Soldotna Regional Sports Complex met the needs of the board and could accommodate the large number of people who came out to observe and participate. We trust that fish board members and staff were able to find comfortable lodging and good meals during their stay.
In other words, it was a productive meeting, and it’s high time the fish board has more of those on the central Kenai Peninsula, particularly when it comes to decisions on Upper Cook Inlet.
While the fish board has conducted work sessions and task force meetings in the Kenai-Soldotna area, it has not held its Upper Cook Inlet meeting — the one where the decisions are actually made — on the central Kenai Peninsula since 1999. The 2017 meeting will take place in Anchorage from Feb. 23-March 8, and the next Upper Cook Inlet meeting isn’t until 2020.
That means that despite the fact that the overwhelming majority of Upper Cook Inlet proposals deal with Kenai River fisheries, an Upper Cook Inlet meeting held here in 2020 would be the first in more than two decades. Simply stated, that has been unfair to the Kenai Peninsula residents most directly impacted by the board’s decisions.
When it’s working, the fish board process is touted as one of the best public processes anywhere. Proposals are put forward by individuals, user groups, and government agencies for review by local advisory committees. The fish board takes public testimony at its area meeting, and proposals are vetted in a process that includes participation from those in attendance.
However, attending a two-week meeting in Anchorage presents a hardship for would-be participants from the peninsula as those staying for the duration will need to spend thousands on food and lodging. Many peninsula residents are able to take a long weekend to provide public testimony at the start of the meeting, but only those who are being paid to be there, or those who can’t afford not to be there, are in attendance when the board starts making decisions.
What’s more, in previous cycles, the board has made significant regulatory changes via board-generated proposals introduced long after most peninsula residents have had to head back home, leaving little opportunity for public comment and undermining the process.
The current fish board has three new members, including Soldotna resident Robert Ruffner. We’re glad to have been able to host the work session this past week, and we hope that moving forward, the board gives greater consideration to Kenai Peninsula residents as it decides where it will conduct the business that has a dramatic impact on our community.