WASILLA -- The latest Cook Inlet salmon war is brewing not over allocation but location -- the setting for an Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting scheduled for February 2017.
The board is expected to pick the venue for the Upper Cook Inlet finfish meeting next Tuesday during a meeting underway now in Anchorage.
The board last year slated the Cook Inlet regulation-setting session for Anchorage. But members later opened the venue up for reconsideration.
Now, parties led by Gov. Bill Walker are pushing for a Kenai Peninsula meeting location in a move widely viewed as one friendly to commercial fishing interests based there. The state fish board decides Upper Cook Inlet salmon regulations every 3 years. At the last meeting in February 2014, the board limited the commercial drift gillnet fleet and sided with sport fishing guides and others hoping to get more salmon to Mat-Su rivers and streams.
Walker sent the board a letter backing the Kenai Peninsula location in October. He pointed out it will have been 18 years "since a meeting was held in the area where much of the fishing takes place" and promised to attend the opening session and proceedings as time allowed.
"There has been much attention given to the controversies surrounding the Cook Inlet fisheries, and I feel we should attempt to improve the communications and exchanges among the many interested parties," the governor wrote. "Holding a meeting on the Peninsula, possibly Soldotna, may show a willingness to consider points of view from local residents who may not have been able to participate over the past five board cycles."
House Speaker Mike Chenault, R-Nikiski, last month also sent the board a letter endorsing a Peninsula venue.
The Cook Inlet commercial sector employs more than 5,000 fishermen with a $100-plus million payroll, according to industry estimates.
If the meeting is moved to the Peninsula, local governments will pick up the tab for more than $61,000 for a venue and free coffee and beverage service, according to a mid-November letter from the mayors of Soldotna, Kenai and the Kenai Peninsula Borough.
Matanuska-Susitna Borough officials and state legislators from Southcentral, however, want the meeting to stay in Anchorage to reflect the region's more than 115,000 sport anglers and avoid giving the commercials a home-turf advantage. It will cost an extra $91,000 to hold the meeting on the Kenai at a time when the state is wrestling with a $3 billion deficit, according to a borough fact sheet.
One of Walker's first acts as governor was appointing Cook Inlet commercial fisherman and former industry group director Roland Maw to the fish board before he withdrew his name from consideration, noted Brett Huber, chief of staff for Sen. Mike Dunleavy.
The Wasilla Republican opposes the move to Kenai, as does Sen. Bill Stoltze, who represents Chugiak and the Mat-Su.
It appears to constituents that "you continue to receive bad advice and provide preferential treatment for one user group, commercial fisheries, to the potential detriment of tens of thousands of Alaskans that participate in the recreational and personal use fisheries," Dunleavy and Stoltze wrote in a Nov. 2 letter to Walker.
Pressure from Walker also triggered a response from Senate President Kevin Meyer, an Anchorage Republican. Meyer sent a Nov. 20 letter to the board voicing constituent concerns that "a representative organization was receiving preferential treatment and advocacy efforts" from the governor.
Meyer urged the board to keep the meeting in Anchorage.
Kenai already has extensive access to the Board of Fisheries process, said Larry Engel, a former board member who sits on the Mat-Su Borough Fish and Wildlife Commission.
The Kenai Peninsula Borough is represented by seven advisory committees that get longer testimony during hearings, whereas Mat-Su has two and Anchorage one, Engel said. There are also already two workshops scheduled for Kenai that year.
The Mat-Su Assembly on Tuesday night backed a resolution requesting the meeting stay in Anchorage as the board originally decided last year.
Several Kenai Peninsula towns have approved resolutions in favor of moving the meeting.