Board should do more to keep process open

Alaska’s process for managing its fish and game has frequently been touted as a shining example of an open public process.

In theory, that remains true. The Board of Fisheries and Board of Game meet on a regular basis to consider and adopt regulations and allocate resources to user groups, among other responsibilities. They consider recommendations from local advisory committees. Proposals for new regulations may be submitted by anyone, from individuals to advisory committees to organizations affiliated with a particular user group. Public process doesn’t get more open than that.

But the process, while still in place and still good in theory, is not working in practice. During the recently concluded fish board meeting for Upper Cook Inlet, for example, the board adopted some new fishery regulations via a board-generated proposal — which means the new regulations did not go through any sort of open public process, save for a relatively brief discussion before the board voted. That effectively closed the process to public participation save for the few people in left in the audience. It also highlights the biggest problems with the board process as it currently operates — access and influence.

In theory, recommendations from local advisory committees should hold much more sway with the board. After all, advisory committee members are generally direct users of the resources being regulated. They get regular reports from local biologists. They interact with members of the public. They should have a good sense for how a given proposal would impact a fishery, or steps that could be taken to improve fishery management.

But if the board generates its own proposals, or gives more weight to testimony from other interest groups, the advisory committee is cut out of the process. Without the ability to influence a board decision via locally accessible channels, it has become more and more important for anyone with an interest to protect or an agenda to push to go straight to the fish board meeting. But being able to attend the meeting has become a limiting factor.

During the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, the board considered more than 200 proposals over the span of two weeks. The meeting itself was held in Anchorage, which meant that people attending from the Kenai Peninsula needed to make accommodations for that long to be able to fully participate. While many people were present for the opening weekend of public testimony, by the time the board meeting concluded, the only people left to watch and participate were, for the most part, those who represented an organization paying for them to be there, and those whose financial interest in board decisions was simply too great for them not to be there. Most everyone else had to go back to their day jobs while the board continued to deliberate, with fewer and fewer voices to contribute to the dialogue.

There aren’t easy solutions to fixing the board process as it pertains to Cook Inlet. But the fish board can take steps toward improving access for more people to attend more of its deliberations by meeting to discuss Upper Cook Inlet issues with shorter but more frequent meetings. Instead of 200 proposals over two weeks every three years, the fish board could more effectively regulate Cook Inlet fisheries by meeting annually. The board would likely have fewer proposals to work through, and meeting could be scheduled for a long weekend, giving more people an opportunity to participate.

What’s more, meetings could be rotated between Anchorage, the Mat-Su and the Peninsula. It has been 15 years since the board has been anywhere near the Kenai River when making decisions affecting the Kenai River. It’s well past time for that to change.

We don’t expect Cook Inlet fish board deliberations to ever become less contentious. The resource is fully allocated, money and politics are too intertwined, and every decision impacts someone. There’s a lot at stake. But the board can and should do better to ensure that what is touted as an open public process in theory stays that way in practice.

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