Vacancy remains at Board of Fisheries months after Williams rejected

Gov. Mike Dunleavy has gone nearly three months past a statutory deadline without appointing a new member to the critical Board of Fisheries and officials in his office are refusing to address it.

The Legislature rejected Abe Williams, Dunleavy’s original appointee to hold a seat on the seven-member board traditionally reserved for commercial interests, during a lengthy joint session May 11.

Williams participates in the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery and is also the regional affairs director for the Pebble Partnership. Many legislators opposed to the mine said they didn’t believe he belonged on the board that regulates the state’s vast fisheries while also working on a mining project that could disrupt the region’s iconic salmon runs.

Others disagreed with his views on de-regulating the Bristol Bay fishery.

Alaska law states that if a seat on the Board of Fisheries suddenly becomes vacant “the governor shall, within 30 days after the vacancy arises, appoint a person to serve the balance of the unexpired term and submit the name of the person to the Legislature for confirmation.”

It has been more than 110 days since the Legislature rejected Williams’ appointment. Officials in the governor’s office have twice announced large groups of appointments to the state’s various boards and commissions since Williams was shot down but Dunleavy has not named his replacement.

When asked why he hasn’t made the appointment so far, Dunleavy’s spokesman Jeff Turner wrote via email that the governor would appoint a new Board of Fisheries member before the board’s busy winter meeting schedule starts in late October.

Senate President Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, said he began discussing the appointment shortly after Williams was rejected and has suggested a couple of names to administration officials as well.

“I know there are qualified Alaskans who want to serve on the Board of Fisheries,” said Micciche, who holds a Cook Inlet commercial salmon permit and characterizes his district as split 50-50 sport and commercial.

Micciche said he is aware of several people from different user groups who have applied in recent months but his queries to administration officials about their names have not been answered.

He encouraged the administration to better meet statutory deadlines and also stressed the need for balance on the board that continuously deals with contentious issues that directly impact the livelihoods of thousands of residents.

“I think the public, who already struggles with the decision of the board of fisheries — depending on which user group they belong to — will have less and less faith in the decisions if there is not balanced representation for the user groups.”

Dunleavy advocated for sport fishing interests while a Wasilla senator and Kenai River Sportfishing Association founder Bob Penney donated heavily to an independent expenditure group formed for Dunleavy’s first gubernatorial campaign.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game under Dunleavy also refused to manage Cook Inlet’s salmon fisheries with federal oversight late last year after the 9th Circuit ordered the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to create a fishery management plan under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

The decision backed by the state at the North Pacific council was to instead entirely close the federal waters to salmon fishing in a move that will drastically curtail the Cook Inlet drift gillnet fishery if it is approved by the Secretary of Commerce and upheld by the 9th Circuit overseeing the case.

Dunleavy’s Director of Boards and Commissions Courtney Enright did not respond to emailed questions about the applicants and calls to Enright were referred to Turner, the governor’s spokesman, who said the Dunleavy is reviewing the applicants and is committed to making an appointment prior to the next board meeting that starts Oct. 20.

Records officials in the governor’s office also did not respond to a formal request for copies of the Board of Fisheries applications since Williams was rejected within the 10-day statutory window and did not provide the applications following subsequent requests for the documents.

Micciche said he believes the applications should be publicly available records.

Former board member Fritz Johnson of Dillingham said in an interview that he applied once Williams’ seat became vacant and discussed the appointment briefly with administration officials.

“I haven’t heard anything back, though I understand there’s a handful of people who have expressed interest,” Johnson said. “It makes sense to have as much expertise on the board as possible.”

Dunleavy originally appointed Williams to replace Johnson in 2020.

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach said the statewide commercial fishing group has twice provided names to the governor’s office upon request since Williams left the board and has generally been encouraging commercial fishermen to apply as well.

“It’s concerning because right now the Board of Fish is definitely stacked against commercial fishermen. It has very strong support of sport and personal use and lacking in subsistence and commercial fishing,” Leach said.

The board rejected an emergency petition from Cook Inlet setnetters on a 4-2 vote Aug. 2.

She added that the critical nature of the appointment process regularly discourages qualified applicants.

“It would be great to see some actual commercial fishing representation on the board,” Leach said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

09/01/2021 - 9:12am