Battle brews over return of Johnstone to Board of Fisheries
Unsurprisingly, there is likely to be a tense vote in the Legislature over at least one of Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy’s appointments to the Board of Fisheries.
A pair of resignations from the board added with the end of member terms give Dunleavy a chance to select a majority of the board’s seven seats with four up for confirmation.
One — Marit Carlson-Van Dort of Juneau — drew some raised eyebrows because of past work with the Pebble Limited Partnership, and another — Karl Johnstone of Anchorage — sparked a fiery opposition from commercial fishermen and vocal support from sportfishermen. The other two, Israel Payton of Wasilla and Gerad Godfrey of Kodiak, drew little to no controversy.
The members of the Board of Fisheries serve three-year terms and determine fishing allocation and opportunity in the state. The appointments are always controversial, with the governor selecting candidates and the Legislature interviewing them intensively before either confirming or rejecting them.
While there are no dedicated seats on the board for either region or user group, stakeholders keep track of where members’ experience and interests lie and calculate the balance of the perspectives. This time, the commercial sector loudly objected to the governor’s appointments, saying the balance would heavily tip toward sportfishery interests.
Bob Penney of Kenai, who has spent decades fighting for sport priority over commercial in Cook Inlet, was a major financial supporter of Dunleavy during the 2018 election.
Johnstone, a retired Superior Court judge and a friend of Penney’s since the 1970s, was the main flashpoint of the group of appointments. Following seven years of serving on the board, he resigned in 2015 after then-Gov. Bill Walker told him he would not be reappointed after former House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, objected to how Johnstone handled the board’s interview process for candidates for commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Johnstone told the Senate Resources Committee in a hearing on April 10 that he was interested in taking up Board of Fisheries service again because he’s been keeping up with fisheries issues and he finds the work rewarding.
“There’s an enormous amount of work involved if you do it right, and an enormous amount of time spent … I choose to consider the rewarding part of it, and that’s why I reapplied,” he told the committee. “I have the time and the energy and the desire to continue this work.”
Johnstone comes with a heavy wake of controversy. During past service, records from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game showed that the department spent more money on lodging for Johnstone than any other member during board meetings in Anchorage, despite that Johnstone has a home in Anchorage.
He maintains a home in Prescott, Ariz., and frequently travels out of state, though he told the Senate Resources Committee that he spends “much more time in Anchorage than I do elsewhere.”
In 2000, he was publicly reprimanded by the Alaska Commission on Judicial Conduct for violating the legal parameters of hiring a coroner and was once recommended for nonretention by the Alaska Judicial Council in 1988 for being unqualified, ranking low in integrity, judicial temperament and overall performance.
Within the fisheries world, he’s a polarizing character. Sportfishing advocates testified to the committee that he maintained a professional demeanor and always came prepared to meetings, running them fairly for the four years when he served as the chairman.
On the other end of the spectrum, commercial fishermen ardently oppose his nomination because they say he is irreversibly biased in favor of the sportfishing industry and say that he created a hostile atmosphere at board meetings.
A joint House Fisheries and Resources committee meeting April 15 attracted more than 100 commenters and ran for nearly four hours, with testifiers on both sides. The Senate Resources Committee meeting on April 10 similarly attracted a large number of testifiers on both sides, though the majority opposed Johnstone.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, an organization representing 37 commercial fishing groups in the state, doesn’t usually endorse or oppose Board of Fisheries candidates because of the potential for repercussions if the person they opposed is confirmed anyway. In written comments to the committee, UFA noted it hadn’t opposed a board member nominee since 2006.
Executive Director Frances Leach told the Senate Resources Committee that Johnstone’s record shows that he is aware of fisheries regulation processes through the board but has disregarded them.
“We understand the risk that we are taking in opposing someone such as Mr. Johnstone because we understand there are repercussions that could cause us harm,” she said. “His blatant bias against commercial fishermen was illustrated heavily throughout meetings.”
Commercial set gillnet fishermen on Cook Inlet’s east side have a particular axe to grind with him. As chairman, he oversaw an Upper Cook Inlet meeting in 2014 in which a board-generated proposal was introduced to set significant restrictions on setnetters paired to restrictions on the Kenai River king salmon sportfishery, which commercial fishermen saw as a violation of the public process because the proposal was introduced, deliberated and passed without public input during committees or public comment.
A number of Kenai Peninsula setnetters testified against his reappointment to the board, with a number saying he used his position to belittle Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists and members of the public.
“My experienced with Judge Johnstone has been anything but fair and balanced,” said Ken Coleman, a Kenai-area setnetter.
Though he’s been absent from the Board of Fisheries since 2015, Johnstone occasionally wrote in opinion pieces to Alaska newspapers focusing on fisheries. Some highlighted a belief that personal-use and sportfisheries needed to take precedence over commercial fisheries and referring to commercial fishing in the state as “the aged and fading sibling.”
Sportfishing supporters wrote in and testified in support of all the candidates Dunleavy appointment, but particularly for Johnstone.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association hosted a letter-generating form on its website, producing a large volume of form letters from individuals, and other organizations noted that the Legislature awarded Johnstone a citation for his service on the Board of Fisheries in 2015.
“We much appreciate that Chairman Johnstone prioritized managing for the sustainability of our fisheries resource first and foremost as well as his efforts to provide reasonable harvest opportunities for all user groups, particularly Alaska residents, most of whom do not own commercial fishing permits,” wrote Martin Meigs, the chairman of the Alaska Sport Fishing Association, in his public comment to the House Fisheries Committee. “People as experienced if (sic) fisheries and as dedicated and competent as Karl Johnstone are few and far between!”
During the hearings, a number of legislators showed skepticism about Johnstone, in part because of concerns about how much time he spends in Alaska. Sen. Scott Kawasaki, D-Fairbanks, asked if Johnstone would release his 2019 Permanent Fund Dividend application — which details how many days a person spends out of state as a qualifier to receive the dividend — as a way of quelling public debate about whether he primarily lives in Alaska or Arizona.
Johnstone, who said he was calling into the hearing from Arizona, said he did not have an objection but wondered “why you want it.”
Applicants for the PFD who are gone from the state for more than 90 days must document their absences and must reside in the state for at least 185 days per year. According to Permanent Fund Dividend Division records, Johnstone did not apply for the PFD from 2002 to 2009, did apply for it while on the board from 2010 to 2015 and did not apply for it in 2016 and 2017 before applying for it once again in 2018.
“By all standards, I’m a resident,” he said. “I do spend time outside Alaska. My interest in the winter at my age has waned a little bit, although I still enjoy it once in a while. I do travel quite a bit. I also travel to other states and countries in the winter … From every point of view I can think of, I’m a resident.”
Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, passed the gavel at the end of the April 15 meeting to explain why she would vote against Johnstone in the joint House and Senate confirmation hearing.
Saying she was “morally and ethically compelled” to oppose him, she added that she understood the governor would not appoint a commercial fishing representative to the seat but wanted to at least see an appointment from outside the Anchorage area.
“I firmly believe that Mr. Johnstone’s reputation and history of biases show that he is not the right person for this board,” she said.
A few commenters said they opposed Carlson-Van Dort because of her work with Pebble, though others supported her because of her background in environmental science and familiar with fisheries. Payton, who currently serves on the board, attracted a number of supportive comments from both sport and commercial interests.
The committees forwarded the names to a joint hearing for consideration.
Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].