Boats in Wrangell’s Reliance Harbor, 2020.
(Sage Smiley / KSTK)

Alaska’s Board of Fisheries has bumped its meeting cycle back a year after cost concerns and public outcry. Commercial fishing interests had raised concerns that a packed schedule wouldn’t give stakeholders a fair amount of time with the board.

Alaska’s Board of Fish is a seven-member board of citizens appointed by the governor. They make critical decisions about the whos, whats and whens of access to the state’s fisheries. 

COVID-19 caused Board of Fish meetings to be postponed, including its regional meeting for Southeast. In January, the board voted to cram two years’ worth of meetings into the next meeting cycle. That would’ve effectively doubled the amount of meetings this year. 

The vast majority of public and advisory committee comments received in recent months raised concerns about the doubled schedule.

On Monday, the Dunleavy administration also weighed in. Fish & Game commissioner Doug Vincent-Lang says his agency does not have the budget for twice the meeting load. 

“Right now we do not have money to double up on in-person meetings next year,” Vincent-Lang said. “I can tell you it’s my intent not to rob Peter to pay Paul to double up on meetings. I’m not going to dig into the department budget at a half-million dollars to fund those meetings.”

Regional management areas around the state hold Board of Fish meetings once every three years. 

The Board of Fish voted unanimously to walk back the doubled schedule, instead pushing the whole meeting cycle back a year. 

Board of Fish member McKenzie Mitchell of Fairbanks says recent feedback and cost considerations had led to the change of heart. 

“With new information that’s presented itself and the overwhelming public comment that doesn’t support holding –doubling up on the meeting cycles, I think reconsideration and a conversation should be had, especially with the important factor that we don’t have the financial support to be able to fully conduct those meetings,” said Mitchell.

But a delay in board meetings also means a delay in board action. 

The Chignik Intertribal Coalition and Chignik’s Board of Fish Advisory Committee were among the only comments requesting that the schedule stay doubled. Chignik’s Board of Fish meeting would have happened this cycle. 

Ben Allen is the vice-chair of Chignik’s advisory committee. He explained that the Alaska Peninsula community’s early and late sockeye runs have been dropping for at least three years. King salmon in the region also haven’t been showing up. He says Chignik needs the Board of Fish to take action to try and save their salmon runs.

“Our communities have dropped away from the idea of just generally having an income,” Allen said in an interview. “Now we’re just trying to make sure that the run doesn’t die off. This has turned into a full-blown conservation issue at this point.”

While the board unanimously reversed the condensed 2021 meeting schedule, board members including John Wood of Willow expressed concern about delayed action for the Alaska Peninsula community of 70 people.  

“I would ask the department to take a look at Chignik’s concerns about their fish not returning and see what the status is,” Wood said. “[And look into] whether indeed, they may have a valid request to have a stock of concern designation on those [runs] and perhaps get back with us and let us know what they find in that regard.”

The board will still hold five meetings during the 2021 to 2022 meeting cycle. 

Four of those are meetings that had already been postponed because of COVID-19: Prince William Sound will be held in late November, Southeast and Yakutat Finfish & Shellfish next January, a hatchery committee meeting in March 2022 and a statewide shellfish meeting that same month.

The fifth meeting in this year’s cycle will be a Board of Fish work session in October.

The Board also extended regulatory deadlines for three Southeast fisheries due to pandemic-related issues with meeting. And it approved the use of a toxic chemical to kill invasive northern pike in a watershed on the Kenai Peninsula.

Get in touch with KSTK at news@kstk.org or (907) 874-2345.