Board of Fish nominees get chilly reception from commercial, subsistence groups

Several old white men on wooden desks talk seriously.
Board of Fisheries members hear testimony on shellfish proposals at the Southeast Shellfish/Finfish meeting in Sitka in 2017. The board sets key allocations and is the final arbiter between gear groups and interests competing over a shared public resource. (Robert Woolsey/KCAW)

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nominees to the board that regulates state fisheries drew a lot of heat at a September 3 confirmation hearing.

The timing of two of the appointments and the COVID-19 emergency makes it possible the appointees could set policy for Alaska’s commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries without first being confirmed by lawmakers.

This month’s House confirmation hearing began with a relative unknown in Alaska’s world of fish politics.

McKenzie Mitchell is an adjunct professor at UAF’s School of Management. She called in from a boat on the Yukon River where she’s working as a moose hunting guide.

It almost seemed like your natural fit for the Board of Game,” House Speaker Bryce Edgmon (I-Dillingham) asked. “Why would you put your name for the Board or Fisheries when your experience is on the game side primarily?”

Mitchell replied that she’d be open to serving on that board too.

My experience, I guess, in both fisheries and hunting in the state of Alaska has been, you know, pretty well balanced,” she said.

As experience, Mitchell has touted her graduate thesis on the region’s halibut sport fishery which is regulated by an international commission, not the state of Alaska. 

Her appointment was also endorsed by Fairbank Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

Rep. Louise Stutes of Kodiak quizzed a different nominee, John Wood, on his close ties to the governor. Wood had worked as an aide to Sen. Dunleavy. He now describes himself as a retired attorney residing in the Susitna Valley.

“Mr. Wood, are you currently in any capacity employed by the state presently?” Stutes asked.

He replied that he has a contract advising the Department of Administration on labor negotiations and reports directly to the governor. But he said he didn’t think there’d be any issues with him serving on the board.

“No fish issues whatsoever are covered by the contract,” Wood said. “So no, I don’t believe there to be any kind of conflict.”

That didn’t satisfy the Kodiak Republican.

Personally, that’s very alarming to me,” she said. “I just believe that morally, not ethically it is a conflict. But I will move on.”

The most controversial nominee has been Abe Williams. He’s employed by the Pebble Partnership which seeks to develop an open-pit gold and copper mine on the headwaters of Bristol Bay where he grew up.

I’ve fished in Bristol Bay for 30 years. I have subsistence fished with my grandmother, I’ve sports fished with my family, my kids. And, you know, I cherish this resource just as any other,” Williams said. “But I also am very, very, very connected to the people in the region.”

Williams was also a plaintiff in a Pebble-backed lawsuit that sought to block Bristol Bay’s regional seafood development association from using dues from commercial fishermen to oppose the Pebble Mine.

My challenge to them was largely in recognition to large sums of monies that we pay into the organization being directed to organizations like United Tribes of Bristol Bay and SalmonState.”

A judge dismissed the case last year. 

Bristol Bay’s sockeye fishery is limited to 32-foot gill net boats — relatively small compared to much of Alaska’s fishing fleet. 

Successive proposals before the Board of Fish to open the fishery to larger vessels have been voted down. He denied being behind past efforts to change the rule. But said he can understand why the limit has critics among some fishermen.

As a fisherman, I can see where the limit of 32 foot really creates a strain on your ability to do so adequately and be safe when you do it,” he said.

One of the nominees was uncontroversial: longtime chairman John Jensen.

The Petersburg resident is now the sole board member from a coastal fishing community for the rulemaking body that makes critical decisions of allocation that can affect livelihoods and impact food security.

It’s also the arbiter in long running disputes between commercial fishermen and the charter fleet or subsistence groups. 

The committee opened the line to public testimony. All of the governor’s nominees received support from the sportfishing sector, including Abe Williams.

Mr. Williams is taking flak today for his connection with the Pebble project but I personally find it hard to believe that he would knowingly jeopardize the fishery that supported him for decades,” said Forrest Braden, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization.

But commercial fishermen took a dimmer view.

It doesn’t matter that Mr. Williams has fished Bristol Bay for 30 years. It matters that he works for the Pebble Limited Partnership,” said Georgie Heverly a Cook Inlet gill netter and member of the Anchorage Fish and Game Advisory Committee.

And the lawsuit he was involved in against the BBRDSA was widely opposed by commercial fishermen,” she said. “So to appoint him as a commercial fishing representative but does not even have the support of the sector is an insult to this process and an insult to Alaska’s fishermen.”

Others questioned the qualifications of the governor’s nominees, all of whom live in the Railbelt, on their grasp on subsistence fisheries.

Appoint someone who’s actually qualified, not someone who has simply floated by or flown into our communities,” said Stephanie Quinn-Davidson is director of the Yukon River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission for Tanana Chiefs Conference.

She says the Board of Fish makes crucial allocation decisions that can impact food security in rural Alaska. 

“These decisions need to be taken seriously,” she said, “and I have concerns with some of the responses you receive from these appointees today that showed woeful inexperience with and knowledge of Arctic Yukon Kuskokwim river fisheries.”

Two of the nominees: Mitchell and Williams were appointed in April. The legislature adjourned early due to the COVID-19 pandemic and neither they nor Wood were confirmed. Legislative legal counsel says state law allows them to serve 30 days after the COVID19 emergency declaration expires: currently mid-December.

But if the state’s disaster declaration is extended, the governor’s Board of Fish nominees could serve until January 18 without being confirmed. 

That means nominees could vote on fisheries issues affecting Prince William Sound and Southeast without being confirmed by a majority vote of lawmakers.

Susan Doherty, executive director, Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, says that isn’t right.

Unless being considered for reappointment,” Doherty said, “we believe no candidate should be able to sit and make judgment decisions that affect the lives and livelihoods or cultural opportunities of the people of Alaska without first being confirmed.”

Yet the Board of Fish’s schedule remains up in the air. Its support staff has pointed to risks of holding in-person meetings in Cordova and Ketchikan this fall and winter. 

The Board of Fisheries has scheduled a work session at 2:30 p.m. Wednesday, September 16 to discuss revising how to hold regional meetings in the age of COVID. It’s considering major revisions to the 2020/21 meeting schedule.

Editor’s Note: The second sentence in this article has been clarified.