A legislative audit released this week recommends a sweeping overhaul of the troubled body that handles lucrative limited-permit entries for Alaska's commercial fishing industry, including a backlog of applications that goes back decades.
But the audit of the state's three-member Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission recommends against a move to bring the commission under the umbrella of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Created in 1974 to conserve the state's salmon, the commission now administers 68 fisheries including salmon, herring, crab, sablefish, shrimp and dive fisheries. Commissioners help decide who gets permits and rule on the appeals of hearing officer decisions and permit transfers. Two commissioners currently serve on the board; a third position remains vacant. Gov. Bill Walker appointed former Wasilla mayor Verne Rupright to that open position, but questions about the commission's future stalled his confirmation.
Commissioner's salaries plus benefits average nearly $200,000 a year.
A Department of Fish and Game consultant earlier this year released a report critical of permit processing delays and relatively high payroll. Legislation introduced last legislative session would repeal the commission and move its duties to Fish and Game. Commissioners and supporters say the body needs to remain autonomous.
The 80-page audit report was released publicly Wednesday following a closed-door session of the state's Legislative Budget and Audit Committee.
One of the main critiques of the commission's recent work -- and relatively high pay grade -- centers on a backlog of 28 limited-entry applications still awaiting a decision, all of which have been in the system for at least 10 years. Two date back to the mid-1970s and 19 to the 1980s.
Those 28 started as a backlog of 900 pending cases, according to a commission annual report released earlier this year.
With few new fisheries coming online recently, the commission no longer has that much work to do: It hasn't limited a fishery since 2004, according to the audit.
The audit concluded that, "in general, its commissioners have not adequately managed CFEC's daily operations" and referenced two projects in particular: a licensing system upgrade and the archival of agency documents. It found that workload doesn't justify full-time commissioner positions and proposes reducing them to less than 15 hours a week without benefits as of October 2016.
It also found that the commission should maintain its independence from Fish and Game to promote public trust in the program and to maintain a separation between the economic and biological management of fisheries.
The audit came up with several recommendations:
Auditors found that the state could save $1.2 million by reorganizing the commission while still maintaining its status as an independent agency.