Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced four appointments to the Alaska Board of Fisheries Monday. One of Dunleavy’s picks has served on the board in the past and is likely to go through a heated confirmation process.
Three of Dunleavy’s appointments, if confirmed by the Legislature, would replace board members Robert Ruffner, Orville Huntington and Al Cain.
Ruffner, who had reapplied for his position, said he’s disappointed with the decision.
“Having other voices in there isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but the Kenai Peninsula hasn’t had a representative on there in a number of years,” he said. “[With] the dependence we have on fisheries, I think it’s important that we have a voice on the board occasionally. I would have been happy to serve a second term.”
Former Superior Court Judge and Board of Fish Chair Karl Johnstone of Anchorage served on the board for seven years, up until 2015. He resigned after he was told former Gov. Bill Walker would not reappoint him to the position later that year. Ruffner later replaced Johnstone.
Johnstone’s potential return to the board is a point of contention for the commercial fishing industry in upper Cook Inlet.
“Johnstone definitely is a concern,” Dino Sutherland said.
Sutherland sits on the Upper Cook Inlet Drift Association board. He said Johnstone supported policies in the past that put more fish into Cook Inlet rivers, favoring sport fishing interests.
“They can only handle so many fish. They have a carrying capacity for optimum yield. That’s what we’ve always fought for, and he has been on record of disregarding that very important science and biological fact,” Sutherland argued. “I don’t remember anybody making the lake any deeper, making the streams any longer, making the rivers any wider.”
Others like Cook Inlet commercial set netter and Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association board member Paul Shadura are concerned about Johnstone returning to the board for other reasons.
“Board members in the past have said that his backroom arm-twisting was very insulting, that he tended to force board members into taking positions they weren’t comfortable with,” Shadura said.
At least one past Board of Fish member who spoke on background supports Shadura’s claim.
Johnstone, who didn’t want to do a radio interview, said he’s heard similar claims in the past. He said they are not true.
Johnstone does have his supporters. Kenai River Sportfishing Association, which has been at odds with Cook Inlet commercial fishermen in the past, views Johnstone’s return favorably.
“We view judge Johnstone as somebody that’s been reasonable in his time on the Board of Fisheries. He’s deliberative and thoughtful and seems to be fair in his decision making process,” Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ben Mohr said.
Still, Johnstone has written opinion pieces as recently as 2017 arguing that sport and personal-use fisheries should be at the forefront of management decisions. If confirmed, Johnstone is likely to grapple with contentious Cook Inlet fisheries, including issues regarding the allocation of fish and a management plan for salmon fisheries in federal waters.
However, Johnstone isn’t the only potential Dunleavy appointee to the board likely to raise eyebrows. Marit Carson-Van Dort worked for the Pebble Partnership as recently as Feb. 2018.
Dunleavy appointed Gerad Godfrey of Eagle River as well. Godfrey is an Afognak Native Corporation board member with past experience in Kodiak fisheries. Current board member Israel Payton of Wasilla was also appointed to a second term.