Rebuffing requests from Gov. Bill Walker and local officials, the Alaska Board of Fisheries this week rejected a bid to move a contentious salmon regulation meeting to the Kenai Peninsula.
The meeting, scheduled for February 2017 to discuss Upper Cook Inlet fishing regulations that divide salmon among sport, personal-use and commercial fishing interests, will take place in Anchorage as planned.
The state fish board decides Upper Cook Inlet salmon regulations every three years. It last held the session on the Kenai Peninsula in the late 1990s, when unruly fishermen disrupted the meeting.
The board voted 5-2 against the move at the end of a lengthy session called to talk about Bristol Bay fishing regulations.
Opponents of the move said Anchorage was the most balanced place to hold the meeting, since the Cook Inlet fishery spans interests from Homer to Mat-Su. Several also noted that if the meeting were moved, three of the board's five meetings for the annual cycle would be held on the Peninsula.
"We have the political pressure, the fairness issue," Petersburg fisherman and boat rental company owner John Jensen said. "If we're going to be fair to the majority of the users, we're going to have the meeting in Anchorage."
Board members expressed frustration that the political pressure over the Cook Inlet meeting locale and lengthy public testimony took time and energy away from Bristol Bay issues they were scheduled to decide.
"We're not the Cook Inlet board of fish, we're the state of Alaska board of fish," Huslia biologist Orville Huntington said.
The vote came despite a push by parties led by Walker for a Kenai Peninsula meeting location, a move widely viewed as one friendly to commercial fishing interests based there and in opposition to Anchorage and Matanuska-Susitna Borough recreational or personal-use anglers and guides.
At the last meeting in February 2014, the board limited the commercial drift gillnet fleet and sided with fishing guides and others hoping to get more salmon to Mat-Su rivers and streams.
The meeting locale turned into a political -- and regional -- football.
Board chair Tom Kluberton, a Talkeetna bed-and-breakfast owner considered friendly to Mat-Su sportfishing interests, told the board just before Tuesday's vote that he was "definitely summoned" to discuss the meeting location with the governor. Walker's calendar shows a meeting with the governor, Kluberton and Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten on Oct. 20 -- the day before the date on Walker's letter instructing the Fish Board to move the meeting.
Kluberton said he doesn't plan to be on the board by the time the meeting is held.
"I told the governor I wouldn't try to sway the board on this," he said during the meeting, adding he would abide by whatever the body decided.
Mat-Su and Anchorage legislators pressed for the Anchorage location to stand. Kenai politicians urged a move to the Peninsula. Three Kenai Peninsula mayors offered a free venue and coffee service, at an estimated savings of $61,000.
A fact sheet distributed by the Mat-Su Borough pointed to a state estimate that holding the meeting on the Kenai would cost $91,000 more at a time when budget constraints have state managers looking for ways to cut costs. But Kenai meeting backers argued the state's estimate was too high. Subtract the venue and beverage service and factor in more realistic airfare and other costs, and it would only end up costing maybe $6,000 more to move Anchorage-based board staff to the Kenai for the meeting, plus travel and other expenses, according to an email from Kenai city manager Rick Koch.
Fairbanks sportfishing guide Reed Morisky, who voted against the move, said it would be "inappropriate" for the board to weigh the mayors' offer to pay for the venue and coffee, which came unsolicited. Morisky said factoring that into the decision could lead to similar offers from other communities.
"I think it completely pollutes the process," he said.
Only two of the board's seven members voted to move the meeting to the Kenai: Kodiak fisherman and writer Sue Jeffrey and Dillingham's Fritz Johnson, fisheries director for the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp.
Eighteen years is too long to go between meetings for Peninsula residents, Johnson said.
"We haven't really had an opportunity to hear directly from many of the people who can't afford to make the run to Anchorage and stay there for as many days as this meeting takes," he said.
At one point, someone in the room interrupted as a board member discussed his concerns about moving the meeting.
That prompted Kluberton to ask if any enforcement was in the room and Jeffreys to hold off on a statement to let the crowd simmer down.
"I'm from Kodiak and I can take a lot but I don't want to be disrupted as I make my comments," she said.