Fishing

'Worst of all possible times' to gut fish commission, chair says

The three-member commission that oversees Alaska's lucrative limited-entry commercial fisheries is urging lawmakers not to pursue proposals for elimination for at least another year.

The state Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission is under fire as a more than $3.5 billion budget shortfall looms. A critical report by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game makes a case for overhaul, citing permit processing delays and relatively high payroll costs. Proposed legislation, House Bill 112, would repeal the commission and move its duties to Fish and Game.

Created in 1974 to conserve the state's salmon, the commission now administers 68 fisheries including salmon, herring, crab, sablefish, shrimp and dive fisheries. Commissioners help decide who gets permits and rule on the appeals of hearing officer decisions and permit transfers.

The three commissioners are all attorneys: longtime commissioner and chair Bruce Twomley, one-term member Benjamin Brown and former Wasilla Mayor Verne Rupright, appointed last month.

Commission salaries last fiscal year started at about $130,000, but benefits and other additions brought the total cost to roughly $200,000 each.

Twomley, appointed in 1982 by the late Gov. Jay Hammond, defended the commission at a hearing before the state House Fisheries Committee on Tuesday morning, urging lawmakers to let the commission finish a historic backlog of 28 undecided cases by next year before making any changes.

Otherwise, he said, fishermen with unresolved permit claims could file legal challenges based on an unfair "divide" between commission-decided cases and those decided by Fish and Game or a new authority.

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"This would be the worst of all possible times to suffer a severe reversal and have it applied retroactively," Twomley told the committee. "That would undo a tremendous amount of work."

Rep. Charisse Millett, an Anchorage Republican who has fished commercially with her family in Bristol Bay, sponsored legislation facilitating a Southeast salmon seiner buyback and noted that it was fishermen who "worked hard" to get loan guarantees in place.

"I'm not sure it needs to be managed under your direction," Millett told Twomley.

He responded that the commission doesn't need to be running buyback programs but is responsible for making sure the permit "give-back" is done.

Millett and committee chair Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, asked Twomley several times about the number of new permit applications before the commission before he answered directly: "There were no new applications for 2014. We're at the point of closing out fisheries. We have this caseload before us."

Stutes is the sponsor of HB 112. That legislation, as well as the state report, will be the subject of a March 5 fisheries committee hearing.

The state review recommended five alternatives besides the existing three-member commission, including repealing the commission. Four call for fewer or part-time commissioners once a long-standing backlog of judgments is cleared.

By the end of 2014, the commission had whittled a historic backlog of 900 pending cases from the 1990s down to those 28, according to an annual report it released last month.

But the Fish and Game review found the commission takes too long to decide cases, calling it a "serious issue for a long time."

The fisheries commission on Monday posted a link to its response to the report from Fish and Game consultant Tom Lawson.

The commission's cover letter to Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten conveys its disappointment that Lawson didn't provide a draft review copy as promised before publishing the final version.

"We note that the author was afforded 5 months to prepare his report," the letter states. "We have done our best to respond within 2 weeks."

A commercial fisherman at a reception this week told Twomley "the report contained more praise than criticism," it continues. "We are sensitive to the criticism, however, because the author accepted as true, complaints about the commissioners without offering the commission an opportunity to respond."

The 34-page response, along with numerous attachments, provides a point-by-point repudiation of critical points raised in the Fish and Game review.

Twomley's comments Tuesday echoed a number of the commission's responses.

The commission's caseload had nearly doubled by 1990 to almost 900, an "unmanageable" level that forced the body to prioritize some fisheries over others, he said. Twomley also pointed to state Supreme Court decisions dating back to the 1980s and said the commission "has never been in a position where we could sacrifice quality for quantity."

He said the commission had a high success rate in cases argued before the Alaska Supreme Court, with only two reversals since the mid-1990s.

The commission prioritizes permit transfers and holds emergency hearings within a day or two of the initial delay, he noted. "I think we can beat any other agency where the right to fish is at stake, the immediate right to fish."

Zaz Hollander

Longtime ADN reporter Zaz Hollander is based in the Mat-Su and is currently focused on coverage of the coronavirus in Alaska. She also covers the Mat-Su region, aviation and general assignments. Contact her at zhollander@adn.com.

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