Lodge owner, salmon drifter tapped for overdue Board of Fisheries vacancy

Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s latest appointment to the Alaska Board of Fisheries believes his ties to both the commercial and sport industries can help bridge the divide between user groups regularly at odds over often contentious allocation decisions across the state.

“I have friends on both sides of the sport-commercial; I see both sides; I financially benefit from both sides so there’s no reason why the two sides shouldn’t be able to work together,” appointee Indy Walton said in an interview Sept 7.

For Walton’s part, he said he’s not interested in the politics that can muddy the board’s decision.

“Fish politics is an ugly business and it’s sad that it is that way,” Walton.

Originally from Fairbanks, Walton describes himself as a third generation fisherman who spent his formative summers at a remote Kodiak Island fish camp and now fishes in the Bristol Bay drift gillnet sockeye fishery. In total, he’s fished commercially for 38 years.

The Walton family also owns Last Cast Lodge, a restored sport fishing operation on the Kvichak River in the Bristol Bay region.

Walton said trust has been the key to success in his parallel career as a financial advisor in Soldotna and will be imperative when making difficult decisions on the Board of Fisheries.

He added that he applied for the seat because he wanted to help protect special places such as the Kenai Peninsula and Bristol Bay where he has had the opportunity to fish.

Dunleavy appointed Walton Sept. 4 to a seat on the seven-member board traditionally held by a commercial fishing stakeholder from the Bristol Bay region. The governor’s first appointment to the seat, Abe Williams, was roundly rejected by legislators in a mid-May confirmation vote on his appointment.

In addition to participating in the Bristol Bay sockeye fishery, Williams 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.

Walton’s appointment also ended a nearly four-month vacancy on the Board of Fisheries since the May confirmation vote, during which time Dunleavy violated a requirement in state law for him to appoint Williams’ replacement within 30 days after the vacancy arose.

Dunleavy advocated for sport fishing interests while a state senator from Wasilla 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.

Records officials in the governor’s office also did not respond to a formal request made in early August 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 until shortly after a Journal story outlining the situation was published Sept. 3.

Rep. Bryce Edgmon, I-Dillingham represents the Bristol Bay region in the state House and said he urged for an appointee who lives there year-round for a true local perspective from the area that supports some of the state’s largest and most iconic commercial salmon and sport fisheries.

While he does not meet that criteria, Edgmon noted that “it clearly looks like he has impressive credentials” for the board based on his resume and added that it’s the governor’s prerogative to make such appointments.

As for the timing of the appointment, Edgmon said it was the first time in his nearly 15 years in the Legislature that he can remember a governor going substantially beyond the 30-day appointment deadline.

“I think it’s highly inadvisable and obviously the wrong precedent to establish,” Edgmon said in an interview.

Officials in the governor’s office previously avoided questions regarding the 30-day statutory appointment deadline but Dunleavy’s spokesman Jeff Turner said after Walton was named that the governor simply took his time to fill an important seat.

“He picked the candidate he felt was best for the position,” Turner said.

Walton’s application was submitted June 3, according to a time stamp on a partially redacted copy of the document provided to the Journal by the governor’s office.

United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Frances Leach wrote via email that Walton’s direct background in commercial fishing and the fact that he still actively participates in the Bristol Bay fishery makes him qualified to fill a historically “commercial” seat on the board.

“He understands commercial fishing — which is integral,” Leach wrote. “Additionally, the little I have interacted with Indy gives my the impression he will be a fair voice on the board and be open and willing to listen unbiasedly to all user groups (be it sport, subsistence or commercial), as well as traditional knowledge and science — which is really what makes for a superior board member on the BOF.”

Ben Mohr, executive director of the Soldotna-based Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said in an interview that he does not know Walton personally and many longtime players in Alaska fish politics aren’t familiar with him, either, but people Mohr has talked to around the Kenai Peninsula have consistently said Walton is “very well-reasoned, very well-respected. He’s known in town as being reasonable and thoughtful.”

Mohr added that more representation from the Kenai Peninsula — home to the state’s most bitter fish allocation fights — on the board is a positive from his perspective

“He’s got a big learning curve in front of him and I wish him well,” Mohr said.

Elwood Brehmer can be reached at [email protected].

09/08/2021 - 10:02am