Boards of Fisheries, Game contemplate challenges of meeting season

In a fall littered with elections and other political fencing matches, two other political bodies are debating whether to meet at all or just punt until next year: the boards of Fisheries and Game.

The boards, particularly the Board of Fisheries, host regulatory meetings every winter that bring stakeholders from all over the state together. Those are problem during the coronavirus pandemic, and the boards aren’t quite sure what to do about it. The Board of Fisheries, for one, is hoping that the situation will be better by the middle of next spring, when it’s still tentatively scheduling its meetings for the Prince William Sound, Southeast/Yakutat, and statewide shellfish meetings.

While other governmental bodies have transitioned to meeting on Zoom and taking public comment via phone, the Board of Fisheries process doesn’t fit well into that model. For one, the stakeholders are spread all over the state, where internet connectivity isn’t always reliable or fast enough to cope with video meetings.

For another, the board depends on public participation. Throughout the meeting, the board members gather comments from the public in attendance. During breaks, the public also regularly works directly with board members off the record on revisions to proposals or new language. These meetings all happen during the winter, indoors, and depending on the meeting, more than a hundred people may be gathered in a relatively small space for hours.

Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight told the board during a work session on Sept. 16 that when the staff surveyed the public about what to do, the results were mixed, but most people who attended meetings in the past were not in favor of virtual meetings.

The board talked about potentially limiting attendance at an in-person meeting instead, but then staff would be faced with how to decide who got to come. On top of all that, many people who responded said they were fairly concerned about catching the COVID-19 virus as well, Haight said.

“These are the middle of the winter, people in close proximity, frequent contacts with all of these participants day in, day out,” he said. “You as board members are speaking with almost everyone in the room … it’s this very organic and human interaction. It’s inconceivable, for those of us who have been to a board meeting, to get through a board meeting where no one gets sick.”

The board members were divided on personal feelings but voted unanimously to pass a set of recommendations about how to scheduling meetings this winter. For now, they’ll be holding the Oct. 15-16 meeting via videoconference, at which time they’ll decide what to do about the remaining meetings in the 2020-21 meeting cycle, which are scheduled to start with the Prince William Sound meeting in Cordova on Dec. 11-17.

Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang said the department had considered the risk to the community of Cordova in brining staff, board members, and other attendees to the community in the middle of a pandemic, especially with the limited health care resources in the small community.

At the same time, though, he said it would be difficult for the department to push the meetings off entirely until next year. That would mean that the department would have to double up on meetings with those already scheduled for the next cycle, and that may not be possible with the existing budget.

The board generally agreed with that assessment and generally didn’t like the idea of virtual meetings to replace full board meetings. Board member Gerard Godfrey said the quality of participation would not be the same.

“Ideally, we should move forward in person if it’s possible and practical and feasible, because I think there are going to be too many essential factors lost in a virtual meeting,” he said.

The board members passed a recommendation for staff to bring back recommendations for options regarding the later meetings at the October work sessions as well. Public comments were divided, with some urging the board to take up virtual meetings. The Board of Fisheries doesn’t currently have any way to telephonically or remotely participate other than submitting written comments ahead of time; neither does the Board of Game.

Multiple commenters pointed out that even in a normal year, traveling to attend and participate in the meetings can be very expensive, and after a summer with a blighted economy, this year might not be possible at all.

But, on the other hand, other commenters — including major fishing organizations like the Southeast Alaska Seiners, Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance, and the Sitka Tribe of Alaska — agreed with Haight and Fish and Game staff that a virtual meeting just wouldn’t work. Tina Fairbanks, the executive director of the Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association, said in a letter that holding the full meetings virtually could exacerbate existing inequities.

“Taking the process to an online format is likely to create even greater barriers to participation,” she said. “The individuals and communities likely to already be affected by barriers to participation are also likely to be disproportionately disadvantaged compared to more centrally-located, technologically advanced groups and individuals. Those that are most well versed in the board process and/or more well-connected to decision-makers will have even greater access, likely greater time, and thus greater influence on the process by the simple fact that so many others will be unable to participate in the process.”

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, wrote in a letter to the board that she didn’t support hold the October work session either online or in person, as both have “insurmountable challenges.”

She asked the board to postpone all meetings to see how the pandemic develops in the state.

The board is scheduled to meet virtually on Oct. 15-16 for a worksession dealing with agenda change requests, non-regulatory proposals, and escapement goal reports from Fish and Game staff.

Elizabeth Earl can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
09/23/2020 - 9:00am