The House Fisheries Committee on Thursday passed a bill that would eliminate the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission and move its duties to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
The unanimous vote came despite fishermen's objections that the bill upends the separation of power between the commission that oversees Alaska's limited-entry fisheries like salmon and the agency that regulates commercial fishing.
The legislation, House Bill 112, goes next to the House Resources Committee. A referral to House Finance is expected, according to Reid Harris, aide to the fisheries committee that's chaired by bill author Rep. Louise Stutes, a Kodiak Republican.
The fish commission is under scrutiny given the state's anticipated $3.5 billion shortfall this budget season, a result of plummeting oil prices. Critics say the commission is an outdated agency the state can't afford.
Created in 1974 to rein in booming salmon fisheries, the commission now administers 68 fisheries including salmon, crab and herring through limited entry. It hasn't created a new fishery, though, in a decade.
Three members help decide which fishermen get permits and rule on appeals of hearing officer decisions and permit transfers. All three are attorneys: longtime commissioner and chair Bruce Twomley, one-term member and two-term designee Benjamin Brown and former Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright, appointed by Gov. Bill Walker in January. Each earns close to $200,000 a year including benefits.
A Fish and Game report this year pressed for an overhaul, citing relatively high payroll costs amid a backlog on 28 cases, some dating back more than 10 years. Rep. Paul Seaton, a Republican from Homer, last year proposed a bill similar to HB 112 and requested a state audit that's underway now.
Brown, one of the three commissioners defending their jobs, urged the committee during Thursday morning's hearing to hold off until the audit was done. He said there are three fisheries around the state that could merit limited entry.
"We certainly hope our actions in the coming year speak much more loudly than anything I can say to you now," Brown said, adding that concerns over current workloads don't justify "destroying an agency in one fell swoop."
He repeated concerns that administering limited-entry fisheries differently could trigger court rulings that retroactively reopen fisheries that are closed now.
Committee member Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican and former Bristol Bay fisherman, responded with a sharp rebuke.
"There's no vendetta here," Millett said. "The most adjudications you've done were in the '80s. Destroying an agency is not my mission. My mission is efficiency."
HB 112 would replace the three commissioners with a director and shift duties to a commercial fisheries entry division within Fish and Game. It would also move contested permit decisions to the office of administrative hearings, with the commercial fisheries division hearing all others. Commission staff would work under Fish and Game.
A section of the bill includes language stating decisions made before the transition to a new structure remain in effect, committee aide Harris said.
Before the vote, committee members heard testimony from a number of commercial fishermen who defended the commission.
Homer herring and salmon seiner Jami Ross called the bill "one of the worst things that's ever happened to our industry," because it removes the separation of power between the business of fishing and its regulation.
"The potential for politicizing the entire process is enormous within the Department of Fish and Game," Ross said.
Brown also raised the potential for conflict if Fish and Game staffers making limited-entry decisions also hold commercial fishing licenses.
But Kevin Brooks, the deputy director of Fish and Game, told the committee the state has the capacity to handle the shift and already "goes to great lengths" to avoid conflicts.
"We think we can make this work," he said. "If it's the desire of the Legislature to pass this, we can keep the functions going."
The fisheries committee on Tuesday takes up more commission business: the reappointment of Brown and the appointment of Rupright.