The fate of many sport, commercial, and personal use fisheries in the Upper Cook Inlet was up for debate during a two-week Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage and many Cook Inlet stakeholders said it was too great of a financial burden to stay in the city and participate in the process.
During the first four days of the triennial Cook Inlet meeting at the William A. Egan Civic and Convention Center, more than 100 members of the public sat in for public comments and board deliberations on fishing issues. But attendance dropped sharply as the meeting progressed.
While the board received more than 470 public comments before the meeting and an additional 270 public comments submitted as record copies during the meeting, relatively few people were on hand to lend their perspectives in person.
Just over 200 people testified during the first days of the meeting.
At each break in deliberations, board members spoke to stakeholders in the audience, about 30 of whom were consistently present each day during the last week of the meeting.
William Faulkner, an Eagle River resident who commercial fishes as a setnetter out of Clam Gulch, was one of about 20 people left to testify after the first weekend of the meeting as the Super Bowl Sunday meeting was adjourned in the early afternoon.
“I’m fixing to run out of money for a hotel room,” he said just before the board broke from taking public testimony and took an afternoon off.
Faulkner, who said he was hoping to sit on at least one committee before having to get back to work, said he was disappointed that he would not be able to do so.
“I was hoping they would not take a Super Bowl break,” Faulkner said. “I don’t think that was very prudent.”
Board chairman Karl Johnstone, appointed in 2008, said it could be a burden to fishers and stakeholders to attend meetings outside of their service areas but he thought there was ample opportunity given to weigh-in during the board process.
“I’m not sure that other methods could be used,” he said. “We give the public the opportunity to provide public comments and we had over 500 public comments and I think all board members try to read them and then I’ve been contacted personally. I’ve talked to many of the people personally here in the meeting hall and they’ve given me their perspectives. They’ve gotten to testify, they have a (record copy) process which is yet another way to get their points across. Then we have the committee process which is yet another opportunity to get their point across.”
Johnstone said the last board meeting held in the Kenai and Soldotna area was in 2008, but some disagreed with his assessment.
“They had a couple of guys show up ... but they didn’t deliberate there,” said John McCombs, a Ninilchik resident who stayed in Anchorage for the duration of the meeting. “Look how many people get cut out. I think it’s a sad way to go about a public process ... although the chairman might consider that a criticism, that’s a reality. They should have it in the area of concern, it’s a no-brainer.”
There are no board records indicating that members of the board met on the Kenai Peninsula in 2008, but board records dating back to 2003 show the last three Upper Cook Inlet board meetings being held in Anchorage. One-day work sessions on Upper Cook Inlet finfish issues were held in 2005 and 2010.
A board task force also met three times in late 2012 and early 2013 to discuss possible changes to fisheries after the 2012 fishing season when many commercial and guided sport users found themselves shut out of the fishery by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game due to low numbers of Kenai king salmon returning to the river.
“We haven’t had a board meeting in Soldotna for deliberations since 1999,” McCombs said.
According to Clarion articles from the time, the 1999 meeting became contentious and the board did not convene in full on the peninsula for more than a decade before meeting for a work session in 2010 in Kenai.
During the 2010 work session, several Kenai Peninsula residents said they were happy to see the full board meet in the area and hoped the trend would continue.
Dwight Kramer, chairman of the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition, a private angler advocacy organization, said at the time that “politics” had kept the board from meeting on the Kenai Peninsula.
“Hopefully this will quell all of the controversy about the Kenai/Soldotna area as being too hostile of an environment to host Upper Cook Inlet meetings,” he said after the 2010 meeting.
Still, the board voted to have its full 2011 and 2014 meetings on Upper Cook Inlet issues in Anchorage, about 150 miles from Soldotna.
Lower Cook Inlet issues were also deliberated in Anchorage in 2013, more than 220 miles from Homer.
The travel burden cut many Kenai Peninsula residents and those who live on the other side of the Cook Inlet out of the process at the Lower Cook Inlet meeting, McCombs said.
“You’d see more people from the Russian villages, you’d see more from Homer, you’d see more of the (Joe Angler),” McCombs said.
Board meeting locations are determined by members, Johnstone said.
“We deliberate on that and we look for some guidance,” he said.
There were several factors that went into deciding where the board should convene for a meeting, he said.
“Kenai and Soldotna meet those factors, but it was a board decision that we have it in Anchorage this time and given the number of people participating probably the infrastructure here is more suitable for that large number,” Johnstone said. “We’re dealing with the whole of Anchorage and the Mat-Su Valley as well and if you have a meeting in Kenai then you’re requiring the people in Anchorage and Mat-Su to go there as well. So it’s kind of an inconvenience no matter what you do for somebody.”
McCombs, who submitted 26 proposals between the Upper and Lower Cook Inlet meetings traveled more than 180 miles one-way to get to Anchorage to talk about his proposals. He weighed in heavily during both meetings, speaking in several committee hearings, giving public comment and addressing each of his proposals.
He wouldn’t have been able to do so, McCombs said, if he had been responsible for all of the costs associated with the trip. He estimated that he would spend about $500 on food and transportation over the course of the meeting.
“I’m pretty cheap,” he said. “I don’t go out to bars at night and do all of the other hootin’ and hollerin’ that lots of guys do, but it’s an expensive proposition.”
McCombs is on the board for the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial driftnetting advocacy organization and is also a member of the Central Peninsula Fish and Game advisory committee, one of several Cook Inlet area advisory committees. Members weigh in on each of the proposals in the weeks leading up to the meeting and the results of committee votes are cited extensively when board members are weighing public opinion on a proposed regulation change.
Members of the Board of Fisheries, lobbying groups including the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, and many state employees stayed at the Hotel Captain Cook for the duration of the meeting.
A hotel employee said the standard government rate was $99 a night, at least a $1,386 bill for the 14-day meeting.
Gary Hollier, an East Side commercial setnet fisher, said he spent about $3,000 to attend the meeting.
“It’s a big commitment,” he said. “These board meetings up in Anchorage are brutal, 85 percent of the proposals are for the Kenai and Soldotna area. The average person cannot take time off from work, cannot take their time to come up here.”
Faulkner, who also farms shellfish in Jakalof Bay near Seldovia, was not able to spend much time watching the process though he did drop into the meeting for a few hours at a time over the two-week process.
“Somebody has got to come speak for us,” Faulkner said. “I’m just trying to learn about the process. I’ve never been here before, there’s a lot we’re fighting for here.”
Board of Fisheries member Fritz Johnson, of Dillingham, said commercial and sport fishers seemed to be represented well and both had a chance to speak to board members.
“I think the voices least heard where Alaskans not specifically aligned with either group,” Johnson wrote in a post-meeting email.
Hollier agreed and said the voice that was most conspicuously missing from the meeting was that of “Joe Angler,” or, the fisher who had no membership in any advocacy organization and no commercial stake in the Kenai Peninsula’s abundant fisheries.
“It’s the commercial interest here,” Hollier said. “It’s the Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition that’s doing a great job. Then you’ve got the Kenai River Sportfishing Asociation and the guide component. It has been like that for 15 years.”
When the board regularly held Cook Inlet meetings on the peninsula the audience makeup was different, Hollier said.
“There was a lot of support,” he said. “When they cover Kodiak, guess where the meeting is? Kodiak.”
Johnstone said he could not think of a more open public process, but acknowledged that people who submitted proposals but were not present at the meeting to defend or explain themselves could be less effective than those who were present.
“I don’t know why they’re not here to support their proposals, there’s a lot of legitimate reasons I’m sure. If they’re not here then we can’t hear them,” Johnstone said. “Everybody else seems to be here, I don’t know why they’re not here but I don’t see what else we could do.”
Several board members said they would consider having the Upper Cook Inlet meeting in the Kenai or Soldotna area during its next cycle in 2017.
“I think it’s vitally important to hold these meetings in the communities most affected,” Johnson wrote.
Reach Rashah McChesney at email@example.com.