AJOC EDITORIAL: Board needed a shakeup, but aftershocks are coming
Alaska had a record number of earthquakes in 2014, but this year could set a new one if Gov. Bill Walker keeps it up.
After openly picking a fight with the Legislature and the supporters of the Alaska Stand Alone Pipeline project by dismissing three Alaska Gasline Development Corp. board members, Walker has stepped on another fault line: Cook Inlet fisheries.
While Alaskans are generally united on fisheries issues such as trawl bycatch or the Pebble mine, nothing sets state residents against each other with greater bitterness than the perennial fights among sport and commercial salmon users in Cook Inlet.
Whether it is Kenai guides against East Side setnetters or Mat-Su Valley anglers and legislators against drift boats or “Joe Fisherman” against both sport guides and commercial users, the term “fish wars” coined to describe Cook Inlet management fights is not much of an overstatement.
The long history of Cook Inlet controversies led to Walker’s latest dramatic move after the Board of Fisheries chaired by Karl Johnstone unanimously refused to deem United Cook Inlet Drift Association Executive Director Roland Maw qualified to interview for the job of Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner.
While there can be no doubt that Maw has not only advocated for his membership but also sharply criticized board actions, there can also be no doubt that he was qualified to be interviewed for the job.
The Board of Fisheries made a mockery of a public process and the law when it refused, without comment, to interview him and put on the record what are the well-known concerns about placing an advocate such as Maw — or any advocate for that matter — into the commissioner post.
Not only did Walker quickly inform Johnstone that he wouldn’t be nominated for a third term on the board, but when Johnstone resigned Walker tapped Maw to replace him.
The move is stunning, and not just for the Hollywood plot twist.
Maw is a far stronger commercial fishing advocate than any of the other members of the board who come from the industry, and replacing Johnstone with Maw reverses the balance of power on the seven-member board.
The sport fish majority led by Johnstone instituted radical changes to Cook Inlet fisheries at its 2011 and 2014 meetings. After the 2011 meeting, Johnstone said that the allocative decisions made in some cases were worth “millions of dollars.”
UCIDA has twice filed lawsuits in federal court challenging Alaska management of Cook Inlet salmon, the most recent in 2013 after the North Pacific Fishery Management Council formally ceded that control to the state in 2012.
Relations are also strained between UCIDA and the Mat-Su Fish and Wildlife Commission because the Northern District sport users successfully pushed for new restrictions on drifters at the 2014 board meeting.
Since then, the group has used state grant money to hire a consultant that commercial fishermen allege is biased against them. That sparked the most recent volley between the two user groups as UCIDA refused to attend a January workshop of the Mat-Su Commission.
Walker doesn’t have to look far into the recent past to see how nasty the Cook Inlet fish wars can be over board nominations and he should expect one over Maw given the makeup of the board and that his term will include the next Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2017.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, mounted a vicious lobbying campaign in 2013 against former member Vince Webster, a setnetter from Bristol Bay, and succeeded in defeating his nomination by a 30-29 vote — the only one of then-Gov. Sean Parnell’s 88 nominations who was not confirmed.
That was when Webster wasn’t even a member of the majority, having lost the chairmanship to Johnstone in 2011.
Think of what KRSA will do at the prospect of Maw shepherding the votes on the Board of Fisheries.
The board needed a shakeup to be sure, but Walker should also be prepared for the aftershocks that are coming.