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Some fishermen object to Parnell's pick of former mining exec as fisheries adviser

Pat Forgey

JUNEAU -- It’s not clear who thought it would be a good idea for Gov. Sean Parnell’s new fisheries adviser to have mining instead of fishing experience but some people in the fishing industry aren’t happy about it.

“We are already aware of where the governor’s sympathies lie," said Gina Friccero of Kodiak, whose family fishes for salmon in Bristol Bay and halibut out the Aleutian chain.

“He is suing the EPA, which is trying to protect the Bristol Bay salmon run; this is just another slap in the face to fishing families,” she said.

What the governor did was hire Ben Mohr as his fisheries adviser. Mohr is best known around Bristol Bay as a spokesperson for the Pebble Partnership, which is trying to develop a huge mine in the Bristol Bay watershed that is seen as a threat to the equally huge salmon run there by commercial, sport and subsistence fishermen, as well as the federal Environmental Protection Agency.

More recently, Mohr was campaign manager for Dan Sullivan, the former Department of Natural Resources commissioner running for the Republican nomination for U.S. Senate this year. 

But for Parnell, Mohr, 33, has the skills to work as a special assistant to the governor on fish and game issues, including land access, with the Department of Natural Resources.

“He has a great understanding of the importance of Alaska’s fish and game resources to our economy and our culture as Alaskans,” said Sharon Leighow, Parnell’s spokesperson.

Mohr, who began work July 7, replaces former special assistant Stefanie Moreland, who became a deputy commissioner with the Department of Fish and Game. That department is headed by Commissioner Cora Campbell, a former fisheries adviser and special assistant herself.

Leighow said Mohr’s duties will be somewhat different from  Moreland’s, and he will have a smaller portfolio. For example, Mohr will not handle the Arctic and ocean issues that his predecessor did.

Mohr has lived in Alaska for 11 years, since moving from Northern California, where he grew up, to finish college at Alaska Pacific University, where he graduated with a degree in outdoor studies. He lives in Eagle River.

But some in the fishing industry have questions about the background Mohr has, as well as the background he doesn’t have.

“I’m not sure he’s well known in the fishing industry -- that’s the first thing,” said Roland Maw, executive director of the United Cook Inlet Drift Association.

And his previous job also makes his appointment controversial for Maw.

“His former work as spokesperson for the Pebble mine causes great concern,” Maw said.

But a sportfishing group said it is willing to give Mohr a chance.

“In terms of being able to analyze policies and provide input to the governor, I think he understands resource issues in Alaska. I think he’ll follow in the footsteps of good fisheries advisers to the governor’s office,” said Ricky Gease, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

A lobbyist for Pebble serves on the association’s board of directors, while Mohr serves on the Alaska Miners Association board of directors.  

Mohr’s resume shows little relevant fisheries experience, other than six years working for the Pebble Limited Partnership on its mine proposal. 

But Gease said one item, his attendance as a fellow with the National Conservation Leadership Institute, is important. 

“That’s something that many of the top fish and wildlife officials in the country go to,” he said.

Mohr’s resume says he was “recognized nationally as a high-potential leader in natural resources.”

The appointment raised eyebrows after radio broadcaster and columnist Shannyn Moore made it public news.

The Alaska Sportfishing Journal called the appointment “peculiar,” while the Seattle P-I’s Joel Connelly said “only in Alaska” would a mine spokesman become a fisheries adviser.
 
National Fisherman magazine asked, “What makes Mohr an expert in fisheries or public policy?” and pointed out that the governor who appointed him “did not exactly win fishermen’s hearts and minds with his position in support of the Pebble Partnership and his vocal opposition to EPA’s authority.”

Leighow declined to provide much information on how Mohr was selected or recommended for the job. 

“The governor’s chief of staff consulted with Commissioner Campbell, as well as members of the fishing and resource industries, regarding Mr. Mohr’s hiring,” she said in an email. 

She did not respond to a follow-up email asking which members of the fishing or resource industries were consulted. Chief of Staff Mike Nizich was unavailable Monday.  

While the governor’s office would not say which resource or fishing groups were consulted about the appointment, Kodiak’s Friccero said she was unaware of any fishing groups that were consulted and wouldn’t be surprised if that’s not where Parnell looked for advice. 

“It’s very clear that his allegiance is with oil and mining. That’s where his loyalties lie, and that’s who he hires and appoints,” Friccero said. 

Democratic candidate for governor Byron Mallott, a commercial and sport fisherman, promised an open and transparent hiring process for such appointments if he’s elected and said he’d put a respected fisheries advocate in the position.

“That’s just common sense,” he said. “I’m surprised the governor wouldn’t know that.”

Former fisheries advisers include such notables as legislators Clem Tillion and Alan Austerman.

Mohr declined to comment publicly on his appointment, saying, “It’s gotten a little controversial.” 

Maw of United Cook Inlet Drift Fishermen said they weren’t consulted. 

“On other appointments we’ve always been asked our opinion but on this one, no, we weren’t,” he said. 

But rival Cook Inlet sport fishing group leader Gease praised Mohr for reaching out to them.

“He’s been down on the Peninsula a couple of times, just reaching out to different user groups,” Gease said.

Commercial fishing’s Maw said his group would have liked to be one of those.

“I understand he was in town yesterday,” Maw said Friday. "It would have been nice to have met him."

Contact Pat Forgey at pat@alaskadispatch.com.