Fisheries managers should reverse course on censoring public comments

The North Pacific Fisheries Management Council process is difficult to navigate. It is a world of acronyms, statistics and legal jargon; but decisions made there impact the lives of all Alaskans, and directly affect allocations of federally-managed species — including king salmon and halibut — to Indigenous, sport and commercial stakeholders. Meetings occur over weeks and can last more than 10 hours per day. It requires significant time to participate, time the average Alaskan does not have. Recently, the Council enacted a policy that makes it more difficult for Alaskans to effectively advocate for their communities, businesses and food sources.

At the April meeting, a policy tightening restrictions on written public comment was quickly proposed and passed. This meeting drew an outpouring of testimony on two items: halibut and king salmon bycatch by the trawl sector. The overwhelming majority of testimony favored reducing that bycatch and managing it based on abundance. People expressed their viewpoints passionately. A few included profanity, but those were dwarfed by the number who respectfully expressed concerns about the future of our ocean ecosystems, fisheries, communities, cultures and livelihoods.

Late on the final day of the meeting, the Council adopted a policy that significantly tightened the rules on written testimony and gave Council staff broad authority to censor and filter comments. Part of their stated rationale for the new policy was that “members of the public linked the comment portal... and broadcast it on social media platforms (Facebook, Reddit), which generated numerous comments from people not familiar with the Council process” and “numerous comments were made prior to any documents being uploaded, and many comments were unrelated to the eAgenda item under which they were posted.” It may be frustrating to the Council when stakeholders are not as familiar with their process and culture as paid advocates whose lobbying contracts are compensation for intimate knowledge of the complex rules and relationships within the system. However, this is not a valid rationale for censoring the public, nor is it inappropriate to share information on how to participate with a broad audience of Alaskans for whom the process may be new or discouraging.

The new policy shortens the time to submit comments, publishes comments only after the period has closed (preventing collaboration and sharing of information), allows staff to sort comments into an “appropriate agenda item” (rather than the item commenters choose), allows removal of comments that are “far off-topic” (who will determine this?) or include “unsupported accusations” (opinions), and implements a system that automatically filters comments with profanity.

While some user groups effectively engage with the Council, the voices of tens of thousands of individual Alaskan stakeholders, whose lives are impacted by many Council decisions, including bycatch issues, are often absent. When they participated in April, their comments were disregarded as baseless or uninformed, and further silenced by this policy. The more opaque, complex and convoluted management systems become, the more those with an abundance of time and money benefit from elite access to the process. One group benefits disproportionately from this policy change: the trawlers. And it is difficult to write off as coincidence that this change immediately follows dominant testimony asking for reductions in trawl bycatch of king salmon and halibut.

The policy impinges on free speech via broad, rushed rule-making, and is a head-in-the-sand approach eroding the public’s faith in and understanding of this process — which seems to be failing everyone but the trawlers. The council should reverse this policy and ask themselves why people were so passionately expressing their viewpoints, what they were trying to communicate, and how they can better engage with and serve the needs of diverse groups.

Mary Peltola has worked for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission as Executive Director since 2017. KRITFC serves 33 tribes on the Kuskokwim River. Mary is Yup’ik Eskimo and was raised in Kwethluk, Tuntutuliak, Platinum, and Bethel.

Scott Van Valin owns and operates El Capitan Lodge and Island Air Express both based on Prince of Wales Island. Scott was born in Anchorage and raised on Lake Clark at his parent’s remote fly-out fishing lodge.

Michael Kampnich has been a resident of Craig since 1985 and a member of the Craig City Council. He fishes commercially for salmon on his drift gillnet boat and longlines for halibut. He has continuously crewed or run his own commercial fishing operation since 1988.

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