Senate committee questions Fish Board appointee over sportfishing support

Gov. Bill Walker's latest nominee for the Alaska Board of Fisheries faced a barrage of critical questions at a hearing Monday over the depth of his support for sportfishing, even as a decision by the Senate majority caucus threw the whole appointment process into limbo.

Robert Ruffner, director of the conservation group Kenai Watershed Forum, has faced criticism from some personal-use dipnetters and sportfishermen from Copper River, the Kenai and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough. They've accused him of supporting commercial fishing interests instead, and have opposed his appointment to the seven-member board that sets and revises fishing regulations in Alaska.

Three of the Senate State Affairs Committee members at Monday morning's hearing hail from Anchorage or the Mat-Su, and they didn't hold back their concerns.

Wasilla Republican Sen. Charlie Huggins told Ruffner he wished the board seat still belonged to Karl Johnstone, the retired Anchorage judge who resigned in January after Walker notified him that he wouldn't be reappointed.

"He was a good man," Huggins said of Johnstone. "And I wished he was sitting where you were, for the record."

"I agree with you on Judge Johnstone. I think he's a good man too," Ruffner replied. "It's unfortunate the situation that's happened. I'd ask you just not to take it on me because I'm trying to do my best."

Sen. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak and a backer of a personal-use priority over commercial fishing when fish stocks are limited, noted that the Chitina Dipnetters Association on Sunday rescinded its support for Ruffner.

"It's very unusual for them to make an endorsement and then withdraw it," Stoltze said.

The dipnetters took that action, Ruffner responded, because he refused to fight for a personal-use preference on the Copper River before he was even seated on the board. Anchorage Democrat Sen. Bill Wielechowski repeated complaints that the Fish Board seat should belong to someone from Anchorage who advocates for sport anglers -- though state law doesn't specify where members must live or what industry they should support.

"It appears to some that … we're changing the way the Board of Fish has been composed for the last 30 years in that we've had an equal number of sportfishing representatives and commercial fishing representatives and also had someone from Anchorage," Wielechowski said.

Ruffner is from Soldotna, "between the Kenai and Kasilof rivers" as he said several times, referencing the world-renowned salmon destinations for sport anglers.

But, he told Wielechowski, he brings a conservation background to the post that few others could offer.

"I've got that track record -- 20 years being a fish-first guy," he said.

During the hearing, he voiced support for dividing salmon fishing restrictions proportionally between all types of fisheries and debunked the contention he would side with the commercial fleet.

Ruffner, 46, graduated from the University of Minnesota with a geology degree with a "rivers emphasis" and serves on the Kenai Peninsula Borough planning committee and a road-service area board.

He is Walker's second nominee for the seat vacated by Johnstone. The first was Roland Maw, head of the commercial industry group United Cook Inlet Drift Association, who withdrew his name in February just before Montana officials said they had opened an investigation into his claims of residency on a sport license in that state. The state affairs committee adjourned Monday morning without moving the nominations of Ruffner or Orville Huntington, a Fish Board member from Huslia expected to be reappointed for a second term.

Normally, the Legislature holds a joint confirmation session on appointees regardless of committee action. But on Monday, the Senate majority canceled the joint session, according to a spokesperson. If the Legislature doesn't meet, the appointments are considered declined, according to a legislative legal opinion. Walker can convene a joint session to consider appointments or call for a special session.