Legislature votes for factions over fish

The mantra “Fish come first” has been exposed as nothing more than a fish tale.

Gov. Bill Walker’s second crack at a Board of Fisheries nominee was defeated April 19 in the Legislature by a 30-29 vote when Robert Ruffner of Soldotna became the latest trophy — though likely not the last — mounted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

Just as it did two years ago to oust board member Vince Webster by an identical 30-29 vote, KRSA engaged in a heavy-handed lobbying effort of distortions and character assassination, this time against a candidate who has devoted his professional career to conservation as the executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum.

While KRSA claims “Fish come first” in its slick propaganda to mask its true purpose as a guided fishing lobbying group, Ruffner has actually lived that motto.

By engaging in a campaign to smear a man who does the work KRSA claims to believe in, the group revealed itself as representing a faction first — not the fish.

For an organization that downplays the linkages between its members and the Alaska Fisheries Conservation Alliance trying to ban setnets in Cook Inlet via a ballot initiative, the guilt by association aspect of its attacks on Ruffner was particularly brazen.

Because they had nothing to pin on Ruffner himself, KRSA cherry-picked the most controversial board proposals from anyone who supported Ruffner as if their own membership isn’t advocating for the most radical change in Cook Inlet by banning a gear group that has coexisted with sustainable salmon runs for more than a century.

Then there was the laughable claim that Ruffner should be rejected because he doesn’t live in Anchorage. What a pile of fish guts.

In its letter to legislators, KRSA argued that Ruffner would be less accessible to residents of Anchorage because he lives in Soldotna. It’s funny  they didn’t have that concern when the last board chairman spent half of every year living in Arizona more than 3,600 miles away from Anchorage and only came back to the state in the winter for board meetings.

Nor should anybody believe KRSA would have made the residency argument about Anchorage had Walker nominated Joe Sportfishing Guide from Kenai for the seat.

This residency argument against Ruffner — beyond the sheer hypocrisy of it given KRSA’s unequivocal past support for having a snowbird serve as chairman of the board — is ridiculous on its face.

If Anchorage and Valley residents who enjoy dipnetting or angling on the Kenai River want to enjoy sustainable salmon harvests now and in the future, it is difficult to think of a better person to have on the board than someone who has dedicated his life to preserving the health of that river.

Ultimately, Ruffner’s work to preserve and protect the Kenai River habitat from human impacts is what really scared KRSA.

Commercial fishermen have long argued that in-river impacts must be considered to ensure sustainable salmon runs, and the last thing KRSA wanted on the board was someone who wouldn’t blithely dismiss such concerns about protecting spawning grounds and tearing up river banks with outboard motors.

The KRSA and Mat-Su narrative is that commercial fishermen are to blame for anybody who strikes out with a dipnet or a pole and to hell with anyone who doesn’t toe that line no matter how many piscis pretzels they have to make out of twisting the truth.

In the end, though, KRSA is just an advocacy group and the real blame lies with the legislators who bought into its cynical campaign that counts on a bipartisan group of bumblesticks to go along with it every time.

Walker shouldn’t cave to the special interests or these selfish and short-sighted legislators in his next pick for the board, but who, after watching what has happened to the likes of good people like Webster and Ruffner, would subject themselves to such unfair attacks if they don’t fall into lackey lockstep with KRSA?

The board process is broken, and what just happened to Ruffner is a perfect example why. Until the Legislature stops putting factions over fish it won’t be fixed anytime soon.

Andrew Jensen can be reached at [email protected].

Updated: 
11/20/2016 - 8:32am

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