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Fisheries politics was rough for all in 2015; let's at least have a working truce in 2016

  • Author: Karl Johnstone
  • Updated: June 26, 2016
  • Published February 13, 2016

Gov. Walker's recent appointment of three individuals to the Alaska Board of Fisheries seems to send the message "Let's move on." 2015 was unique for Alaska fisheries, especially in Cook Inlet. Many things happened to make people unhappy.

The Alaska Supreme Court rejected a lawsuit by the Cook Inlet Fishermen's Fund, commercial fishers, who asked the court to require the Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADF&G) to provide more red salmon fishing time for them in the setnet fishery regardless of the impact on the Kenai River late-run king salmon. The court upheld the discretion of ADF&G managers to protect the kings. This significantly cost the setnetters.

Next came the court's rejection of an initiative to ban setnet fishing. Sports fishers had pushed for an initiative to ban setnets on the grounds that they indiscriminately harvested non-target species and killed too many kings. The lieutenant governor initially rejected the initiative as an appropriation. His decision was overturned by a Superior Court judge. Based on that ruling, proponents gathered sufficient signatures to put the matter on the ballot. But the state appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the decision and ruled the initiative unconstitutional.

Meanwhile, UCIDA, a commercial drift fishing association, sued the federal government seeking to force a federal management plan for Upper Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. The plan would have given the feds oversight of state management. A federal court ruled against UCIDA and the case is pending appeal.

Then commercial fisherman and UCIDA executive director Dr. Roland Maw was appointed to replace me on the Board of Fisheries (BOF). Dr. Maw faced a hostile Legislature but his appointment never went to a vote. He was charged and convicted of residency fraud in Montana for claiming resident hunting and fishing privileges there. As a result, he withdrew his name from consideration. He has since been charged in Alaska with PFD fraud.

The governor then appointed Robert Ruffner, another Peninsula resident, to take Maw's place. A bitter fight ensued and he failed confirmation by one vote.

Finally, there was a battle over whether to hold the next Upper Cook Inlet meeting of the Board of Fish in Anchorage or Kenai. Anger and bad feelings remain from the decision to hold it in Anchorage. The last meeting on the Peninsula was in 1999.

In the wake of all this, Gov. Walker has appointed three individuals to fill current and upcoming vacancies on the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Robert Ruffner is once again nominated, as are Al Cain, a former wildlife trooper, and Israel Payton, a hunting and sport fishing guide and lifelong resident of the Mat-Su. Bristol Bay will, for the first time, not have someone living in its area on the BOF. And it should be a concern for the Bristol Bay stakeholders. But, for now, with the Upper Cook Inlet meeting fast approaching, the governor's appointments seem to make sense.

Upper Cook Inlet fish annually consume a great deal of energy. The state spends much time and money in managing, defending its position and providing infrastructure for the fishery. The BOF spends a disproportionate amount of time dealing with regulatory issues. The users -- commercial, sport, guided sport and dipnet -- never know what restrictions they will face season to season. The only certainty seems that every three years there will be new regulations and complexity that make it difficult to make future business decisions.

It is time for everyone to take a deep breath, put 2015 in the rear view mirror and move on. I know that is harder than it sounds. The setnetters this time faced losing their opportunity to fish. They are angry at the sponsors of the initiative. The guides and anglers have lost opportunity to catch kings and are angry at the setnetters. The drift fishers are angry because some productive fishing areas have been closed to protect Mat-Su red salmon and provide silver salmon to anglers. And the dipnet crowd is angry that it has been denied opportunity to catch kings and given too little time to fish reds.

It is time to look for cooperative ways to accommodate all these users in a manner that sustains the resource and optimizes benefits. States with struggling salmon runs would like to have our problem. There should be enough to go around while ensuring a sustainable fishery as the Alaska Constitution dictates. But first we must set aside anger and bitterness and try to understand each other's points of view.

We must now recognize that no user group is going to eliminate another one. Finally, management and policy decisions should be made based on science and economics, not politics. Nobody is going away. All have legitimate concerns. Significant economic value is at stake. It is time to get back to work. We must team with the Legislature and the BOF in a productive and constructive manner. Ways to reduce in-river fishing pressure and improve selective fishing methods in the commercial fisheries are worth revisiting. Agreeing on what is essential to sustain the resource, then determining the "needs" of others vs. the "wants" is essential.

The most important thing is to move forward and recognize that if we do this right we can provide very real benefits to Alaska and Alaskans for years to come.

We all have some fence mending to do. Let's get to it.

Karl Johnstone is a retired judge and a former chairman of the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, email Send submissions shorter than 200 words to or click here to submit via any Web browser.

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