Johnstone fires first salvo in Fisheries Board confirmation battle

The Alaska Board of Fisheries system -- to paraphrase Winston Churchill -- is the worst way to regulate fisheries, except for all the others.

Decisions made by the board can have far-reaching consequences for the state as well as for direct users, be they commercial, recreational, personal use, subsistence, urban or rural. As a commercial fisherman for nearly 40 years, my main interest in BOF issues is related to my livelihood, but I have also fit in any of the other categories at one time or another. I have spent countless hours at BOF meetings and know first-hand that the opportunity to present issues in the BOF forum and perception of fairness in the way decisions are made is a crucial component of Alaska's enviable position as the world leader in sustainably managed fisheries. Since BOF members are tasked with resolving extremely contentious conflicts, they can easily end up being vilified by nearly everyone. Rarely, if ever, has service on the BOF led to higher office. It is a thankless but important job that requires a lot of hard work, time and critical thinking.

For BOF seats, the governor appoints and the Legislature confirms. Consistent with politics, the various interest groups scramble to lobby for or against candidates. Gov. Walker's recent appointee, Robert Ruffner, the former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, from all appearances, has stellar qualifications for the job. He isn't specifically sport or commercial and has a background in habitat protection, an aspect of fisheries regulation that all users should view as key to healthy stocks.

Nonetheless, Karl Johnstone, the former chair of the BOF who was recently passed over by Gov. Walker for reappointment, has fired the first volley in the confirmation battle with his commentary published March 31 in Alaska Dispatch News. In it, he claims that the population of Anchorage will be disenfranchised by seating a guy from Soldotna and that the Legislature should not approve Mr. Ruffner's appointment -- an amusing argument from my friend Karl, who spends a considerable part of the year at his Arizona residence. To me, it looks like the usual suspects again flexing political muscle to bias the board in their own favor regardless of the candidate's character and capability. One might also point out that the particular Anchorage clientele that Mr. Johnstone is likely to be concerned about typically migrate to the Kenai River watershed where Mr. Ruffner lives for their fishing activities.

Count me in as a supporter of diverse representation on the board, but that doesn't mean I want the advocacy model used in legal settings pitting one member's constituents against another's. As Mr. Johnstone pointed out, "They (BOF members) serve all of Alaska, regardless of where they live." When my issues are up for consideration by the board, I want them to be assessed by individuals who can view them from different perspectives, not someone who is beholden to a specific locality or interest group.

BOF members are subject to conflict of interest standards that too often prohibit deliberation or decision-making by individuals who are most familiar with a particular fishery or area and may be best situated to assess the issues. While the present conflict of interest rules dissuade otherwise good candidates from BOF appointment and ought to be modified, it appears that Mr. Ruffner is the type of candidate from the Cook Inlet area who actually could participate in discussions relating to what is probably the most contentious area in the state.

Unlike Mr. Johnstone, I hope the Legislature will allow our duly elected governor to have his BOF appointee approved by the Legislature. The critical issue is to have well-qualified individuals on the BOF who will serve the interests of the whole state, not just one area or point of view.


Chip Treinen lives in Anchorage and has fished commercially for more than 35 years in a variety of fisheries from Southeast to the Bering Sea. He is the vice president of United Fishermen of Alaska and a member of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's technical committee.

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 commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.