I'm no stranger to fish and wildlife politics, but the Kenai River Sportfishing Association's (KRSA) recent successful efforts to oust Board of Fish (BOF) member Vince Webster by preventing his reappointment has to take the cake in terms of smear campaigns.
From the start, KRSA's "action alert" letter to members and legislators was a complete fabrication. They based the crux of their opposition to Mr. Webster based on the outcome of a proposal put forward by the Alaska Department of Fish & Game. In their action alert, KRSA claimed that Mr. Webster "participated in precariously and unnecessarily lowering the escapement goal of Kenai River king salmon during a time of record low abundance and uncertain future production."
Unmentioned was the fact that the BOF voted unanimously, 7-0, after weighing all the data and opinion of biologists and managers, to accept the recommendations of the Department and lower the escapement goal.
Did the other six members of the board not also participate in "precariously and unnecessarily" lowering the escapement goal? KRSA's action alert surely makes it sound like Mr. Webster's vote was an anomaly. And hypocritically, KRSA supported the reappointment of another BOF member who voted the exact same way.
Perhaps sensing that those of us involved in fish and wildlife politics, including the current administration, felt that KRSA had jumped the shark and stepped way over the line on this one, Ricky Gease, the executive director of KRSA, doubled down on the smears in a recent Dispatch op-ed, and then painted them this way: "Our [KRSA] recent activities to educate the public and legislators about former Alaska Board of Fisheries member Vince Webster were fact-based and truthful."
The crux of KRSA's opposition to Mr. Webster was again summed up with this line from Gease's op-ed: "His failed leadership to provide adequate board oversight regarding an alarmingly low new interim escapement goal for Kenai kings...."
What is at all "fact-based and truthful" in blaming Mr Webster and him alone for the outcome of a unanimous vote by all seven members of the BOF? And what is this magical "adequate board oversight" Gease speaks of? Should Mr Webster, who was not the board's chairman, alone ensure the board functions to KRSA's liking?
The truth about all this is that KRSA has a mission, and it unfortunately seems to have strayed from real king salmon conservation. It's about putting more fish in the river for the sportfishers and river guides. It's about allocation. Which means it's also about trying to further limit the other commercial sector: the setnetters. And lo and behold, Mr. Webster is a Bristol Bay setnetter.
The best example of KRSA's real agenda is from this testimony Bob Penny gave to the legislature back in 2007 when he represented KRSA: "There isn't a single thing your committee or this Legislature can do to have more economic impact and strengthen the state than one single thing, now that is increase the availability for sportfishing in Cook Inlet; it will double in value in two years. You take a pond here put catfish in it, the people are gonna show up. Take a part of the channel and put king salmon in it, I assure you the people are gonna show up."
Penny, a well-known developer, went on to tell legislators of increased land values and assessment taxes associated with more fish in the river, and argued that allocating 85 percent of the fish to the Cook Inlet commercial fishermen and only 15 percent to sportsmen and tourists and individual Alaskans needed to be turned around 180 degrees. This was at a time when the Kenai River fishery was already overcrowded, overfished, and the river and habitat was being negatively impacted from such use.
On the whole, KRSA's agenda seems at cross purposes with its ostensible "conservation" mission. How much more can the Kenai River take? How much more can the fish take? Clearly the dropping size of Kenai kings is tied to the sportfishery.
I can understand and respect some of the allocation arguments that KRSA and others make, that the commercial fishery gets too much, let's allow more fish to get by the nets so there is more opportunity for the other user groups. At the same time, however, we should all be aware that in a mixed stock fishery where we have late run kings and sockeye salmon hitting the rivers together, the sport and personal use fisheries simply cannot prevent overescapements that lead to lower returns. So in effect, we need the setnetters and the commercial inlet fishermen.
But what all of us should not respect, nor condone, no matter our position or viewpoint, is any organization running a smear campaign against a BOF member as a political tactic to get him ousted from the board. The very sad fact is that so many legislators seemed to have bought into it. Not to mention how this kind of dirty-politics-at-its-worst will only prevent good people from wanting to serve on our fish and game boards.
Shame on KRSA.
Mark Richards is co-chair of Alaska Backcountry Hunters & Anglers www.alaskabackcountryhunters.org
The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail commentary(at)alaskadispatch.com.