Legislature narrowly rejects Ruffner for Board of Fisheries

Another Board of Fisheries nominee has fallen victim to the aggressive politics of the Cook Inlet fish wars.

The Legislature voted 30-29 against confirming Gov. Bill Walker’s Board of Fisheries nominee Robert Ruffner during the end of session confirmation hearing on April 19.

Walker nominated Ruffner to the position following the resignation of Karl Johnstone as the board chair and subsequent withdrawal by Roland Maw after criminal charges were filed against him in Montana over receiving resident hunting and fishing licenses.

Ruffner is a well-credentialed conservationist, which coincides with Walker’s stated goal to rid the Board of Fisheries of politics in favor of science-based, “fish first” management. Ruffner is the director of Soldotna-based Kenai Watershed Forum, and has led several successful conservation efforts for the waterway. His stated goal was to represent all groups equally with conservation of the habitat and stock in mind.

Ruffner’s largest opposition in the Legislature came from the House Republicans from Anchorage, the Mat-Su, and the Upper Railbelt, whose 18 delegates voted unanimously against Ruffner.

The eight-member Mat-Su Borough delegation voted against Ruffner. Fairbanks and North Pole were divided evenly.

All three Juneau votes went in favor of Walker’s appointee, along with Soldotna, Sitka, Kodiak, Homer, Bethel, Dillingham, Ketchikan, Nikiski, and Barrow.

Senate Republicans voted against Ruffner 8-6, with Senate Democrats voting in favor 5-1 with Sen. Bill Wielechowski of Anchorage the lone dissent among his party against Ruffner.

Ruffner said in an interview that he didn’t expect to get all legislative votes in his favor, but expected a better turnout than the 29-30 vote. He said he’s disappointed some legislators voted against him in spite of his testimony addressing their concerns regarding sportfishing, personal use, and regional escapement.

“I am at a little bit of a loss,” said Ruffner. “When I talked with them in detail, there wasn’t one point I made on record they disagreed with. They said I wouldn’t be an advocate for sportfishing and wouldn’t be an advocate for dipnetting. And those are absolutely not the truth.

“They asked if I recognized the need for fish to reach the Mat-Su River drainages. I said I absolutely do. I said would be willing to stop commercial fishing altogether if there were dire conditions. They just totally dismissed it. Their minds were already made up.”

Walker’s choice of Ruffner would have revised the board’s composition to focus less on industry representation, but he faced an uphill battle from embedded interest groups and political affiliations. Ruffner’s supporters said the failed nomination is a step backward in the board selection process that will only further polarize the already antagonistic groups.

“This vote makes the fish wars worse,” said United Fishermen of Alaska Executive Director Julianne Curry.

Curry said Ruffner’s failed nomination could have a chilling effect on nominations.

“It’s hard enough to get good, quality candidates on the Board of Fisheries,” she said. “Who’s going to want to volunteer just to have their name dragged through the mud?”

United Cook Inlet Drift Association President Dave Martin said, “It’s just unfortunate that we had the politics override the science and biology what we need to do keep our rivers and fish stocks safe.”

Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease did not return a voicemail from the Journal seeking comment.

The politics behind the board confirmation process, however, don’t go away easily, according to an April 19 confirmation hearing statement from Rep. Kurt Olson, R-Soldotna.

“The definition of a ‘balanced board’ is when your side has one more seat than the other side.”

Commercial vs. sport

Ruffner has no financial stake in commercial fisheries, but opponents argued that he would upset the user group balance of the Board of Fisheries.

The first letter speaking against Ruffner was sent by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, or KRSA, a group of professional guides and lodge owners, with additional affirmations of opposition from the Alaska Outdoor Council, Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, Southcentral Alaska Dipnetters Association, and Chitina Dipnetters Association.

The KRSA letter most clearly summarizes the arguments against Ruffner’s confirmation. Ruffner said the allegations and their legislative counterparts are entirely mischaracterizations, embellishments, or outright lies.

KRSA wrote that the “lion’s share” of public support for Ruffner came from commercial stakeholder groups like United Fishermen of Alaska and individual set and gillnet commercial Cook Inlet fishermen, whose support for Ruffner was equated with direct commercial representation by KRSA and opposing legislators.

Ruffner’s consolidated letters of support show several recommendations from commercial groups like United Fishermen of Alaska, the Alaska Salmon Alliance, and the Alaska Trollers Association, as well as sportfishing groups like the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition, the president of Alaska Fly Fishers, the Alaska Charter Association, Trout Unlimited, and the cities of Seward, Homer, Kenai and Soldotna.

KRSA’s letter also said that Ruffner had made statements questioning Board of Fisheries Cook Inlet policies limiting commercial fishermen, asking for greater flexibility for the commercial fisheries management, and alleging negative habitat impacts from Kenai River sportfishing. Ruffner denies the first two as mischaracterizations and the last as a fabrication.

Since the 1990s, the informal makeup for the Board of Fisheries has been three commercial fishing representatives, three sportfishing representatives, and one subsistence representative. With the reappointment of subsistence representative Orville Huntington, the board now has three commercial and two sportfishing representatives.

The seat Ruffner was nominated for previously belonged to Karl Johnstone, who resigned after Walker announced he would not be nominated for a new term later this year. Johnstone represented sportfishing interests.

 “Sometimes the interests of sport and commercial fishing interests clash,” said Wielechowski during Ruffner’s confirmation hearing. “It was with that reason that Gov. (Walter) Hickel back in the 1990s decided he was going to balance the Board of Fish. He said ‘enough of this, let’s have an equal number of sport and commercial fishing representatives.’ All those governors we’ve had recognized that balance until now.”

The criticism of Ruffner’s non-sportfishing background spilled into the public arena. The Alaska Dispatch News published an opinion article on April 13 written by Kevin Delaney, a former director of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game Division of Sport Fish and current fisheries consultant for KRSA.

The article reiterated KRSA’s argument that the majority of Ruffner’s supporters were commercial industry stakeholders and listed policies these groups have supported in the past.

The Dispatch News published Ruffner’s rebuttal to Delaney’s piece on April 15 denying the allegations of commercial partisanship and insisting on a refusal to represent any one group more than the next at the expense of the habitat.

Personal use and zip codes

Wielechowski and other legislators had concerns about Ruffner’s support of personal use fisheries. Ruffner initially had the support of the Chitina Dipnetters Association. The group rescinded its support in an April 12 letter, citing Ruffner’s “advocacy for equal sharing of ‘the burden of conservation’” as proof he would not support personal use fisheries. 

Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, who had introduced a bill in February to create a fishing hierarchy that would put personal use above commercial and sport interests in times of conservation, was the first during the confirmation session to speak against Ruffner’s nomination.

“I’m very worried about the access to personal use,” said Stoltze. “It’s one of the most egalitarian of our activities, where the poorest of our new Americans, our immigrant communities, can participate and put protein in their freezers.”

In an April 8 Senate Resources Committee hearing, Ruffner explained to Wielechowski that he questions the implications of creating a priority for personal use fishing. The Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy doctrine of equal share of conservation preempts such a priority, he said, as it dictates an equal share of all user groups in conservation necessity.

The Sustainable Salmon Fisheries Policy is an ADFG bylaw that governs salmon fishing in Alaska.

Later questioned by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, Ruffner said that though he would not prioritize personal use fishing, he would not advocate for the personal use fishery to be shut down before commercial fisheries, either.

KRSA and legislators further argued that Ruffner, a Soldotna resident, would compromise the geographical integrity of the board, as he is not an Anchorage resident. Though not required by statute, the opposition argued that an informally designated Anchorage seat, with 40 percent of the state’s population, is of paramount importance to the board’s composition.

The Alaska Dispatch News published an opinion piece written by Johnstone, who insisted on the tradition of an Anchorage representative on the Board of Fisheries. In his rebuttal piece, Ruffner denied that the location of residence should make a difference in the governance of the statewide resource.

Ruffner’s rejection by the Legislature resembles a recent Board of Fisheries reappointment process.

In 2013, Board of Fisheries nominee Vince Webster was also voted down by a 30-29 vote along the same party and regional lines. A major criticism of the appointment failure was the intense lobbying effort of KRSA, which Rep. Les Gara, D-Anchorage, called “character assassination.”

Webster was the only one of 88 board and commission appointees who was not confirmed during the 2013 cycle. He was also the only one of three board appointees that year who was a commercial fisherman. Tom Kluberton, a Talkeetna lodge owner and the current board chair, and Reed Morisky, a new appointee and Fairbanks fishing guide, were confirmed without objection.

Webster, a Bristol Bay set and gillnet fisherman, completed his term on the board June 30, 2013.

In Webster’s case, 19 of the 21 opposing House votes and six of nine in the Senate came from Anchorage, Mat-Su and Fairbanks area Republicans.

“It is disappointing, discouraging and disheartening when bad information or politics prevent a qualified Alaskan from serving our state,” Gov. Sean Parnell said in a prepared statement at the time.

Some of Ruffner’s supporters referred to Webster’s nomination during the confirmation hearing and implored their fellow legislators not to repeat it.

“We sat here with Vince Webster a couple years ago,” said Micciche, who voted in favor of Ruffner. “I was taught to never bear false witness. We made the mistake of kind of believing something, and let’s not let that happen again. The truth is Robert has significant diversified support across the state.”

Micciche dismissed the allegations against Ruffner and boiled down the opposition to a single point.

“A vote against Robert is a vote against healthier runs in the Northern District (Upper Cook Inlet),” he said. “When all the other charges have been proven to be unfounded, Robert becomes a victim to five numbers. Those numbers are his zip code.”

Walker said in an April 19 press conference does not currently have a replacement name for the Board of Fisheries appointment, but will start back through the list of applicants and nominate another in short time.

There will be no confirmation hearing for whomever Walker nominates. That person will serve for the entire year until the 2016 legislative confirmation hearing.

This upcoming Board of Fisheries cycle is entirely dedicated to finfish, which includes salmon. The board has meetings scheduled for Bristol Bay, Arctic/Yukon/Kuskokwim, Alaska Peninsula/Bering Sea/Aleutian Islands/Chignik, and statewide finfish from October 2015 through March 2016.

04/22/2015 - 1:17pm