If Alaska's ailing fisheries are to be winners on the world market, decisions on how those fisheries are run should be made by experts in the field, not political appointees who may have little real-life fishing experience, says Rep. Drew Scalzi, R-Homer, sponsor of a bill to change the way members of the Alaska Board of Fisheries are appointed.
The latest version of House Bill 283, a committee substitute passed Monday by the House Special Committee on Fisheries, is scheduled for a teleconferenced hearing at 1 p.m. today before the House Resources Committee.
If adopted in its present form, the seven appointed seats on the Board of Fish would be designated -- two going to commercial fishers, two going to sport fishers, another pair to subsistence fishers and one named at large.
In each case, the designees would have to have at least five years of active participation in commercial, sport or subsistence fisheries to qualify. Where required, each would also have to hold the appropriate fishing permits. Board members could not be appointed to more than two consecutive terms.
The governor currently appoints board members, but without specific seats going to specific user groups. A flaw in that system, said Scalzi, is that appointment rules do not require a board member to be particularly knowledgeable about fisheries.
"The way it is now, it's very political," he said Tuesday. "You can have seven nurses on there."
The current board lacks adequate commercial fishing representation, he said in a sponsor statement accompanying the bill. "With the entry of high-quality, lower-priced foreign-farmed fish on the world market, Alaska needs innovative, knowledgeable and progressive individuals from the commercial fishing sector to ensure that our fisheries can hold their own against such challengers," he said.
A Fish Board of designated seats probably won't win the backing of Gov. Tony Knowles, according to Bob King, Knowles' press secretary, who said that he believes Knowles would oppose it.
"I can't see the governor supporting any limitation on appointments to boards such as this," he said. "I can understand what Scalzi is getting at, and I imagine that would be popular among various commercial fishing groups."
It would, however, limit the ability of future governors to select people to the board, he said. Beyond that, King questioned whether designating would make any difference.
"What problem would it solve?" he asked.
Commercial fishers may feel frustrated by what they perceive as a lack of commercial representation on the board, yet the major challenges facing the salmon industry are well beyond the jurisdiction of the Fish Board -- questions of marketing, quality, competition from farmed fish. Those are not board issues, he said.
"To a certain extent, regardless of what they do, people have to recognize this won't address a lot of the fundamental needs of the salmon industry," he said.
Scalzi, a commercial fisher himself, said the current bill would fill the seats with people intimately familiar with the various fisheries and produce more balance to the board.
Indeed, issues such as riverbank degradation, international salmon treaties covering migration patterns and harvest levels and stock depletion make good arguments for a board with seats specifically designated for sport and personal-use fishers, he said.
As for the subsistence seats, Scalzi said, the current co-management of Alaska fish resources by the state and federal governments makes it vital that subsistence users be at the board's table.
"The Alaska Board of Fish, in its management, would bode well to have representation from the subsistence users of this state," he said. "Alaskans need to adequately address commercial, sport, personal use and subsistence all within the context of each other."
Will the bill pass in its present form?
"To be honest, I don't have a good feel for it right now," Scalzi said. "I'm trying to get everybody on board. I know I don't have the administration on board, yet, but I think the industry likes it."
In the end, he wants consensus.
"I'm not pushing it come hell or high water, but I think it is important, and I want the support of the Legislature," he said.
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