JUNEAU -- Alaska sportfishing groups flexed their muscle and successfully blocked a commercial fisherman from taking a seat on the Board of Fisheries.The seven-member regulatory board decides how the catch of salmon, halibut and other fish is allocated among commercial fishermen, sport anglers, personal use fishermen and subsistence users.
In a joint session Thursday, and without debate, lawmakers voted 42-16 to reject Brent Johnson, a lifelong Alaskan and setnet commercial fisherman from Clam Gulch on the Kenai Peninsula.
Representatives from 14 sportfishing groups appeared in the Capitol to oppose Johnson, claiming his confirmation would upset a delicate balance of commercial fishermen and sport anglers or personal use fishermen on the board.
The dispute was portrayed as putting another commercial fisherman in the place of a neutral swing vote -- Bonnie Williams of Fairbanks.
"Legislators listened to our powerful request and acted in the public's best interests," said Bob Penney, a longtime sportfishing advocate on the Kenai River.
Johnson's confirmation would have taken Alaska back to 1988, he said, when commercial fishing interests dominated the board.
Sport anglers found allies among lawmakers representing interior Alaska lawmakers and rural districts.
Reps. John Coghill, Dave Guttenberg, Scott Kawasaki, Mike Kelly and Jay Ramras, plus Sens. Joe Paskvan, Joe Thomas and Gene Therriault, all representing Fairbanks or North Pole districts, voted no.
Likewise, Democratic Reps. Bob Herron of Bethel, Reggie Joule of Kotzebue and Woodie Salmon of Chalkyitsik, voted no, although Johnson did win the support of Rep. Bryce Edgmon of Dillingham, Sen. Albert Kookesh of Angoon and Sen. Donny Olson of Nome.
That was more than offset by state representatives and senators from both parties in Anchorage and Mat-Su districts. Sport fishing representatives in the last two weeks have emphasized how many anglers in their districts catch fish in the Kenai Peninsula and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Johnson said he was disappointed by the vote but would not say he had been treated unfairly.
"It's the will of the people, so that's the way it is," he said.
"I never heard anybody say anything against my character, and I'm proud of that," he said. "If I didn't fit into the grand scheme of things, that's the way it goes. Hopefully the governor will find another person that's good and will do a good job on the Board of Fish."
He acknowledged he was caught in an issue that had little to do with his personal qualifications.
"The people in Fairbanks have a legitimate gripe," he said. "They were losing representation. Every area should have representation.
"That was a legitimate gripe. I'm not Native," he said. "I guess that's a legitimate gripe too."
Russell Thomas, president of Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, said the commercial fishing lobby has had a strong legislative influence for a long time. Sportfishing is now being recognized as an economic driver.
"One small decision can have a huge impact," he said.
Penney said sport fishing groups that pushed for Johnson's rejection hope to maintain their influence through a statewide organization.
"Hopefully, Johnson's replacement will bring back the balance to the board that it's had for 20 years," he said.