Conflicts of interest should nix nominee to Board of Fisheries

Posted: Sunday, May 05, 2002

Every year, or so it seems, a new verse gets added to the Kenai Peninsula's ongoing lament over fish and fish-related issues.

This year the new lyrics revolve around the question: Should the Legislature confirm Brett Huber, the executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, to a seat on the Board of Fisheries as requested by Gov. Tony Knowles?

Although Knowles has named three new members to the board, all of whom must win legislative approval, only Huber's nomination is causing any fuss. The other two nominees are Art Nelson of Anchorage and Gerry Merrigan of Petersburg. Both have backgrounds in commercial fishing.

Nelson is employment and development coordinator for the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents vessels involved in the Bering Sea pollock fishery. Among other fisheries-related jobs, he also has several years of commercial fishing experience in Prince William Sound. Merrigan, a commercial fisher, holds a Southeast salmon power troll permit and federal halibut quota shares. He also works as a policy analyst for Prowler Fisheries and served for five years on the Northern Panel of the Pacific Salmon Treaty.

All three nominees depend on fish for their livelihoods.

Because Alaska's complicated fish fights often have allocation at their heart -- who deserves what fish and how many? -- it would seem logical that the nominees with commercial fishing backgrounds would draw opposition from a sport-fishing crowd in the same way that Huber's nomination is drawing fire from commercial fishers, but they aren't. What's the difference?

There are several.

Huber's opposition comes from many camps, not just commercial fishers. It's not a simple matter of sport (pro-Huber) vs. commercial (anti-Huber). There are avid sport and personal-use fishers who oppose Huber's nomination because of his involvement with recent changes that turn the Kenai River's early king run into a virtual catch-and-release fishery.

Those changes make fish primarily "sport," not "food," and for many of Huber's opponents, that's an irreconcilable, philosophical difference, and rightly so. A fish on an Alaskan's dinner plate should be more important than a trophy fish hanging in the home of a California tourist.

Huber also has political connections that apparently don't plague the other nominees. The governor is co-host to the Kenai River Classic, which is the Kenai River Sportfishing Association's premier event; a powerful legislator sits on the KRSA board; Huber's wife works for the Senate president.

In addition to his political connections, Huber has an image problem. Despite KRSA's excellent work in the area of habitat restoration and public education, the by-invitation-only Kenai River Classic increasingly is viewed as an event exclusively for the rich and famous. Yes, the classic raises millions for the river, but it also is one more thing that makes many peninsula residents believe they are losing the river to outsiders. Take Huber's connection with the classic and his support for catch-and-release fishing, and it's easy to see why some would think he would favor professional sport guide interests over everything else as a member of the Board of Fisheries.

Could Huber divest himself of his political connections and image problems as a member of the Board of Fisheries and do right by the resource? Of course he could.

But the perception, no matter what Huber did or didn't do, would be that he could not, would not and did not. The perception would be that his political connections and his position at KRSA influenced everything he did -- no matter how fair he was in his decision-making.

And that's baggage the Board of Fisheries does not need.

While Mr. Huber has both the knowledge and skills to serve on the Board of Fisheries, the Legislature should reject his nomination because a board member should not be plagued by a public perception that he will be influenced by politics or special interests. That perception causes irreparable harm to the process.

In the event that the Legislature does confirm him, he must make every effort to remain open-minded and keep lines of communication open with all user groups. Only then will Mr. Huber be successful at his two new jobs -- serving on the Board of Fisheries and winning the trust of his many opponents.

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