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Next round of Walker fishery appointments closely watched

  • Author: Nathaniel Herz
  • Updated: September 28, 2016
  • Published March 12, 2015

JUNEAU -- Commercial fishermen who make their living in federal waters off Alaska are watching as Gov. Bill Walker prepares to announce a set of appointments to the board that manages the multibillion-dollar fishing industry in the North Pacific.

One of the principal roles of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is overseeing the massive, Seattle-based factory fishing vessels that catch and process lower-value groundfish like pollock, mackerel and sole.

But since those fleets also make incidental catches of salmon and halibut, Walker's appointments will have ripple effects on smaller commercial and recreational fisheries and on communities across Alaska.

"The public really doesn't understand, I don't believe, the full scope or depth of the commercial fisheries that the council regulates," said Mike Szymanski, a former state legislator who now works in government relations for Fishermen's Finest, a Washington-based company with two large boats that fish in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska. "Every decision that's made at the North Pacific council directly or indirectly moves around that engine, that economy."

Walker's first big fisheries appointment was controversial and was ultimately withdrawn last month. Roland Maw, whom Walker picked for the state Board of Fisheries, is now the subject of a criminal investigation by Montana authorities over potentially conflicting residency claims.

This time, Walker is proceeding deliberately: His staff consulted with 52 people and groups in the process of narrowing the field for the council appointments to nine candidates.

Walker is expected to announce his selections Friday, after his choices for the council have completed an application that requires the disclosure of details like their subscriptions to fishing magazines.

There are two open seats and Walker will submit a preferred name and two alternatives for each to Penny Pritzker, the U.S. commerce secretary, who will make the final selections.

Fishermen and fishing groups are waiting to see how Walker's decisions reflect suggestions from his own administration. Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott, who used to own commercial fishing permits, and has been designated Walker's fisheries advisor, is expected to play a role; so is Sam Cotten, the commissioner of the state Department of Fish and Game.

Then there's Clem Tillion, a former state legislator who supported Walker's campaign.

Tillion, at 89, is an iconic player in council proceedings and still works as a consultant to a subsidiary of the Aleut regional Native corporation. He also happens to be Cotten's father-in-law.

"There's a tremendous amount of apprehension about appointments at this time, given the early stages of the Walker administration," said Julianne Curry, the executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska. "Folks are trying to find out not only how they can be helpful in providing input, but also who to provide that input to."

The council is involved in several issues with big impacts on fishermen across the region, and one of the most controversial is its authority over the limits on boats' unintended take of fish like halibut and salmon, known as bycatch.

Halibut bycatch, especially, is a contentious issue for the council. It sets the limits on the bycatch that's allowed by the Seattle-based groundfish fleet in the Bering Sea and the Gulf of Alaska.

And those limits in turn have an impact on the smaller commercial boats that directly fish for halibut, as well as on sport and subsistence fishermen.

By federal statute, Alaska has six appointees on the 11-member council -- a majority. One of the two incumbent members, Ed Dersham, recently underwent kidney transplant surgery and is unlikely to be selected. But the fate of the other, Dan Hull, is less clear. Incumbents are often reappointed, but some people and groups, especially in Southeast Alaska, have pushed the Walker administration to consider candidates beyond the incumbents, saying they want more firm support from Alaska's members on the council.

The Juneau-based Central Council of the Tlingit and Haida Indian Tribes, concerned about issues related to subsistence and commercial fishing in Southeast Alaska, has suggested two nominees.

One is Art Nelson, U.S. Rep. Don Young's son-in-law and the executive director of the Bering Sea Fishermen's Association. The other is Linda Behnken, a Sitka fisherman and former council member who runs a nonprofit group that represents smaller boat owners and crew.

There's "such cultural significance to the fish populations and how we subsistence-harvest, and making sure that those interests are equally as weighed by the council is very important," said Grace Singh, a special assistant to the president at the Tlingit and Haida central council. "Both candidates we suggested would bring a change to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council."

People associated with the Washington-based fleet of larger vessels say they're not interested in a shakeup.

"Our perspective is regulatory stability," said Stephanie Madsen, the executive director of the At-Sea Processors Association, which represents mostly Seattle-based companies that own and operate large trawlers that fish for pollock in the Bering Sea. "So that you're not all of a sudden finding yourself under different rules that are upended -- I think that's what makes everyone more nervous."

Karen Gillis, Walker's director of boards and commissions, was responsible for the initial vetting process. She said in a phone interview that she interviewed 11 applicants and ultimately presented Walker with an informational packet with nine candidates.

The governor, a former oil and gas attorney with limited fisheries experience, is taking a "team approach" to his choices with Mallott, Gillis said. She added that Cotten's opinion will also be "extremely important."

As for Tillion, Walker's campaign booster who's also Cotten's father-in-law, Gillis added: "Clem has weighed in, like everybody else. But I don't expect Clem to have any more influence than I do, even."

Asked how Walker was evaluating his choices, Gillis responded that the council doesn't always split along regional lines -- and she said that prospective appointees' allegiance to state interests wouldn't be Walker's primary consideration.

"Whether or not an Alaskan votes that way all the time isn't as important as it is to have people we think can make very sound decisions and be a record builder of sorts," Gillis said. "We are really looking for people who can navigate through the science and come out on the other side with what is best for the resource and the industry."