Money in the game

If your standard of living depends on how much money you make by fishing for salmon, chances are good that you’ll be attending the Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting in Anchorage from Jan. 31 to Feb. 13. On the other hand, if you fish for recreation and to put salmon on your table, you’ll likely come up with some excuse for staying home.

 

Normal humans try to avoid pain, so don’t feel guilty about not going to fish board meetings. The pain comes from sitting for eight hours or more while listening to biologists’ reports on all the various fisheries, listening while scores of people try to convince board members why this or that regulation ought to be changed, and listening to board members trying to make sense of it all. Still more pain comes with the realization that you’re the only one in the crowded room who doesn’t fish for a living.

It’s a fact. If you don’t have money in the game, you very likely won’t play the game. It takes a lot of will power, courage, persistence and coffee to sit through one of these meetings and stay until it’s over. Step out of the room at the wrong time, and you’ll miss something important, such as a chance to talk to a board member, or to sit on a key committee. You might claim that you live for fishing, but unless you fish for a living, you probably won’t have enough incentive to make it through one of these meetings.

If you leave, you lose. In 2002, I testified at a fish board meeting in Anchorage, stayed through days of public testimony and biologists’ reports, and left the room, thinking I had done all I could. By the time I came back to the meeting the next day, the board had made the early run of Kenai River king salmon almost totally a catch-and-release fishery. Board members later said they thought they were doing what the public wanted. That was because the only “public” the board heard from were fishing guides and the guide-friendly Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

Emotions sometimes run wild at fish-board meetings. In 1999, the last time the full board met in Soldotna, things became so hostile that an Alaska State Trooper stood at the back of the room for most of the meeting. Ever since, when Upper Cook Inlet Finfish regulations are being addressed, the board has met in Anchorage. The board has turned down many entreaties to meet in the Kenai-Soldotna area, claiming that Anchorage is central to all the users and Department of Fish and Game staff, that Anchorage has more and better facilities, and that meeting expenses are lower in Anchorage. To the best of my knowledge, State Troopers have never been called to one of the meetings in Anchorage.

I’ve heard many complaints from people who say they can’t afford to go to fish board meetings in Anchorage, where they’ll have to spend upward of $2,000 to live in a hotel and eat in restaurants for two weeks. Most fishing guides and commercial fishermen can’t afford this expense any better than anyone else, but they somehow manage to go to Anchorage and stay through the meeting. They can’t afford not to go and stay.

People attend these board meetings with mixed emotions. Some expect to gain something, some expect to lose something. In reality, the board giveth and the board taketh away. All salmon fisheries in Cook Inlet are fully allocated, so if the board gives a fish to one user group, it has to take it from another.

My explanation of the nature of the beast — the fish-board meeting — might seem like I’m complaining, but I’m not. I like the Alaskan process for making regulations for fishing, hunting and trapping. It’s probably more democratic, more open to the public and more fair than any system in the world. The process isn’t pretty, but what political process is? Certainly not one that allows distant bureaucrats to make the rules.

What concerns me most about Alaska’s regulation-making process isn’t that it’s so political, but that the main players — often the only players — have money at stake. For this reason, it’s extremely important to maintain a balance on the board, so as to ensure that all user groups are fairly represented.

The Alaska Constitution says fish are commonly owned by all Alaskans. What it doesn’t say — and this should go without saying — is that Alaskans who want to take part in the rule-making process should attend Board of Fisheries meetings.

Les Palmer can be reached at les.palmer@rocketmail.com.

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