Most of the members of Alaska’s citizen board that regulates and sets rules for fishing in state waters are up for confirmation by the state legislature this year. Some of the governor’s nominees to the Board of Fisheries are drawing scrutiny.
The Board of Fish has a lot of power over one of Alaska’s cornerstone resources. So the composition of the seven-member body — and how it balances interests — can cause quite a hullabaloo. One ongoing point of contention is the geographic spread of the board.
“Currently, the board has only one coastal member, John Jensen from Petersburg,” said House Speaker Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), speaking at a joint committee meeting last weekend. “The other six members are from Anchorage, Willow, Eagle and Fairbanks. The balance is not acceptable to any community that relies on commercial fishing, one of Alaska’s greatest industries.”
It’s not just where board members live that raises eyebrows. It’s also how they allocate fish between the often-competing interests of commercial, subsistence, and sport users.
Recently, a commercial fishing industry group has organized opposition to current chairwoman Märit Carlson-Van Dort. Speaking to lawmakers, she defended her record saying she listens to all sides.
“I have done all that I know, to do to make sure that I have been honest and transparent with the public. Everybody knows that the Board of Fisheries process is a very public and very involved process,” she said.
United Fishermen of Alaska, an industry group that represents harvesters and processors, called on the commercial fleet to oppose Carlson-Van Dort.
“She said earlier today that she’s worked hard to broker compromise. I did not see that whatsoever. In fact, it seemed like the opposite of that,” testified Kodiak fisherman Danielle Ringer. She recalled feeling like Carlson-Van Dort came to a recent Board of Fish meeting with her mind made up already.
“It felt like our words were actually lost on her and she appeared sort of bizarrely wholly uninterested in what people were sharing,” Ringer added.
The vast majority of public comments against Carlson-Van Dort came from Kodiak, and many cited her votes at a 2020 Board of Fish meeting when Carlson-Van Dort voted on controversial measures to protect the failing fishery in the Alaska Peninsula community of Chignik. Carlson-Van Dort grew up fishing in Chignik.
Others spoke more favorably of those votes. Raechel Allen is from the Alaska Peninsula community of Chignik, where Carlson-Van Dort has fished. She says Carlson-Van Dort puts the health of the fishery first.
“If Märit has any bias it is a bias to protect salmon, and I really highly support her and I hope you will take her,” Allen said.
Rep. Kevin McCabe (R-Big Lake) asked Carlson-Van Dort whether she would rethink any of her positions in the face of opposition from commercial fishing groups.
McCabe: “Would you stand by it? Would you take the same vote today, knowing the opposition you’re going to get from the Kodiak fishermen, and UFA, and everybody, it seems like, on the planet… Would you still take the same vote to protect the fish?”
Carlson-Van Dort: “Through the chair: Yes, I would.”
Five nominees — Carlson-Van Dort, Abe Williams, McKenzie Mitchell, John Wood, and John Jensen — were under scrutiny during a marathon six-hour weekend meeting of the Alaska House Resources and Fisheries committees. Public testimony was limited to 60 people.
Two of Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nominees have worked for the Pebble Partnership which seeks a massive open-pit mine at the headwaters of Bristol Bay.
Carlson-Van Dort is one of them. The other is Anchorage-based Abe Williams.
“I regard Abe Williams as a shill and a promoter for the Pebble Partnership,” said Timothy Gervais of the tiny Yukon River town of Ruby.
He’s referring to Williams’ day job as director of regional affairs for the Pebble Limited Partnership. Williams has defended his stance pointing out that he’s from the Bristol Bay region.
“I engage with communities that have been closely related to the project,” said Williams, “I also have engaged with fishermen over the years, and continue to do so right now on top of that, I fish in Bristol Bay and have for 39 years, and continue to do so alongside three of my boys, and will continue to do so until my hair is too gray or I can’t handle it anymore.”
Appointed last year when the COVID-19 pandemic shortened the legislative session, Williams has yet to be confirmed by lawmakers. McKenzie Mitchell, an adjunct at University of Alaska Fairbanks who has worked as a seasonal guide, is in the same boat.
Mat-Su attorney and former Dunleavy legislative aide John Wood is up for re-consideration this year after having only served since 2019. That’s because he joined the board to fill a term after the legislature rejected nominee Karl Johnstone, a former state judge, accused of inappropriate behavior while on the board.
The only nominee that received no critical comments is a long-time member and former chair of the board. Petersburg’s John Jensen is up for another three-year term and will be the Board of Fish’s only sitting member from a coastal community.
Confirmation of all five nominees remains to be considered by a full floor of the House and Senate.
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