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Gov. Dunleavy’s controversial Fish Board appointees will get a legislative hearing in September

Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s controversial selections to the state Board of Fisheries will get a legislative hearing in early fall, and the call is out for public comments.

The board oversees management of the state’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries. Appointments were made on April 1 and would normally go through a vigorous vetting process by the Alaska Legislature with public input. But COVID-19 sent lawmakers home early from the last session, leaving the confirmation process in limbo.

Now, state Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak) has set the date for a hearing.

“I tried to push it out as far as I thought I safely could because I know there’s a lot of guys out fishing. But I just didn’t dare push it any further than Thursday, Sept. 3, at 10 a.m. at the Anchorage Legislative Information Office,” she said in a phone interview.

Stutes, who chairs the House Fisheries Committee, added: “I think it is appropriate to vet these appointees prior to the board meetings. I find it disturbing and I question how appointees can be a viable, countable vote when they have not been confirmed by the legislature, and that’s the situation now.”

Controversy has swirled over Dunleavy’s selection of Abe Williams of Anchorage, director of regional affairs for the Pebble mine project, proposed to be built at the headwaters of the world’s largest sockeye salmon fishery at Bristol Bay.

Williams, who would replace Fritz Johnson of Dillingham, is originally from King Salmon and is a Bristol Bay fisherman. He was one of six who in 2019 sued the fishermen-funded Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association for using part of the 1% tax paid by its 1,650 members to oppose the mine. The lawsuit, funded by Pebble, was dismissed by an Anchorage judge.

Williams told KTUU in April that “my job finds me in communities like Iliamna and other communities talking about the project itself and kind of what it means for the region. Does that preclude me from being appointed or sitting on the Board of Fisheries? I don’t think so. I think it just brings in a level of diversity in my background that really helps me be better positioned to sit in a coveted spot like this, if you will.”

Current Fish Board member Märit Carlson-Van Dort also was a former Pebble Partnership director as recently as 2018.

Dunleavy also appointed McKenzie Mitchell of Fairbanks to replace Reed Moriskey, also of Fairbanks. Mitchell described herself as a fishing/hunting guide and is listed as adjunct faculty in “sport and recreation business” at the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Management.

Mitchell “has fished with several remote lodges over the years and was looking to upgrade her captains license so joined our team,” according to the website of Kodiak’s Wilderness Beach Lodge. It adds, “She goes to school in Fairbanks in the fall/winter where her and her boyfriend reside and enjoy flying their small planes into remote hunting/camping sites.”

A personal records request was submitted to the Governor’s Office of Boards and Commissions for information about Mitchell.       

“As far as these two appointments go, the Dunleavy administration is once again either out of touch with commercial fishermen at best, or out to get us at worst,” said Lindsey Bloom, a fisherman and a campaign strategist for SalmonState. “I fished around Abe in Bristol Bay and certainly respect his skills and knowledge as a commercial fisherman. That said, his employment with Pebble makes it impossible for him to properly represent the overwhelming majority of Bristol Bay fishermen who oppose the Pebble project because of its detriment to the Bristol Bay brand and fishery. Abe’s appointment is a colossal conflict of interest.

“As far as McKenzie Mitchell goes, I can’t find her resume, background or opinions anywhere online and have no idea if she can bring the listening and discernment skills that a seat on Alaska’s Board of Fisheries requires, where decisions are made that impact the livelihoods and wellbeing of Alaskans for years to come.”

If the governor has his way, all Fish Board members but one will reside inland.

“There are seven Board of Fish members and John Jensen of Petersburg will be the only coastal representation,” said Stutes. “I understand that Interior fisheries are important, but so are coastal fisheries. There should be a fair distribution of the resource representation and there isn’t. It’s just wrong.”

If the Legislature gets called back to Juneau to deal with budget and COVID relief issues and it interferes with the Sept. 3 date, Stutes said she will call a hearing there.

“Bottom line is there will be a hearing prior to the first Board of Fish meeting in October. I believe it’s critical to give people an opportunity to weigh in,” she said.

After the hearing, the appointee names will be forwarded to the House Resources Committee and then to the full Legislature for confirmation (or not). An emergency measure due to the pandemic was implemented (HB309) which temporarily extended the time for the Legislature to meet jointly to take up the governor’s appointments prior to the next legislative session in January. If that does not occur, Stutes said the nominees will simply “go away.”

Meanwhile, they will be seated as voting members during the meetings starting in October that focus on Prince William Sound, Upper Copper and Susitna Rivers and Southeast and Yakutat regions.

“They are just like a regular board member and that to me is problematic. I believe they should be confirmed by the Legislature. It’s a goofed up system,” Stutes said.

Public comments on the Board of Fisheries appointees can be emailed to Stutes’ legislative office at rep.louise.stutes@akleg.gov.

“They can start today,” Stutes said.

Salmon predictors - Alaska salmon managers have decades of data to help them forecast and track the arrival of fish each year. Alaska Natives add to that knowledge with their centuries of salmon observations.

One indicator of the size and timing of the runs is the spring bird migration, said James Nicori of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission.

“Looking at the birds and observing them, they were late. So those salmon will come in, but the high numbers will be at a later date,” he told KYUK in Bethel. Another sign, he said, is the size of mosquitoes when they arrive in the spring.

“This year, when the mosquitoes first came in they were bigger than last year, and the first kings that I caught were bigger than last year,” he said.

The biggest indicator, Nicori added, is wind.

“When there is a certain wind direction, it pushes fish in the mouth of the river,” he said.

Yukon elders taught the importance of wind to Phil Mundy, longtime Director of NOAA Fisheries’ Auke Bay lab in Juneau, now retired. Cook Inlet elders said the same thing about sockeyes.

“They said ‘it’s when the wind blows and you get the biggest tide closest to July 17. Everyone knows that,’” Mundy said. “We couldn’t figure out how the wind was doing what it did. I didn’t think the fish put up their dorsal fin like a sail to blow into the river, but there had to be something there because the elders seemed to be right.”

Mundy had studied Alaska salmon since the 1970s, but it wasn’t until 2006 when he learned that wind helps trip a calcium ion switch that mixes the water and lets salmon adjust from salt to fresh water and vice versa.

“I used to count fish from airplanes, and I’ve seen at Bristol Bay and at Cook Inlet where you get the river water piling up against the marine water on the river plume, and then you’ll see the salmon weaving in and out along the edge between the fresh and the salt water,” Mundy explained. “And I never knew why they were doing that. They will pile up there if there is no wind to mix that water to make it brackish. They will pile up until some other trigger, which we probably don’t understand, sends them all in.”

At the Yukon River, Mundy said the wind-whipped water even tops early ice melts as the best indicator of the salmon arrivals. Today satellite data from the Alaska Ocean Observing System make predictions easier and more reliable.

Seafood sales surge - The pandemic stalled seafood sales at restaurants where up to 75 percent of Americans opt for fish or shellfish meals. But at supermarkets and outlets that offer online sales and pickup or delivery services, seafood has become the fastest growing category.

Chicago-based Information Resources Inc. said that year to date sales of both canned and frozen seafood were nearly 37 percent higher over the four weeks ending in mid-April and the upswing has continued.

Nielsen, which has documented eating trends for over 90 years, said seafood was the fastest growing category at the end of May when purchase volumes jumped 26% over the prior 13 weeks.

At the end of June, IRI added, seafood posted the most significant growth for 10 weeks straight, up 64% from a year ago.

Sales of fresh seafood spiked nearly 60 percent to nearly $163 million for the week ending June 27, according to Nielsen data provided to SeafoodSource. Sales of fresh lobster increased almost 292%, followed by crab, (up 150.5%), clams (up 80.1%), and snapper (up 79.4%).

Frozen-seafood sales jumped more than 50% in May and increased by 21% to $1.2 billion in late June. Frozen crab had the biggest sales gain of nearly 170% followed by frozen scallops (up 106.6%), crawfish (up 100.8%), and mussels (89.4%).

Canned and pouched seafood saw more modest gains of 12.2% but sales reached nearly $5 billion at the end of June.

Thirty-two percent of households said they were “extremely or very likely” to use grocery online shopping and delivery or pick up services even if the virus subsides, especially those over 60.

The upward trend at retail is likely to continue. Restaurants that had reopened are now facing restrictions again as the coronavirus spikes in many U.S. states.

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