By the time the Alaska Board of Fisheries holds its next meeting on Upper Cook Inlet fisheries, it will have been nearly 20 years since its members have chosen to do so on the Kenai Peninsula.
During the last day of the board’s work session in Juneau, members set the schedule for its next cycle of meetings. Several dozen people, city governments, boroughs and fishing advocacy groups and the entire legislative delegation from the Kenai Peninsula weighed in on the issue.
Primarily, the comments fell into one of two sides: people who wanted the Board of Fish to hold its next Upper Cook Inlet meeting in the Kenai and Soldotna area and people who wanted to see the meeting continue to be held in Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Valley.
Many of the public comments on holding the meeting away from the peninsula referred to Anchorage as a “neutral” area between the Mat-Su region and the central Kenai Peninsula.
Board members in favor of keeping the meeting in Anchorage used the same terminology.
“This has been a difficult one for me,” said Sue Jeffrey, board member from Kodiak. “I understand the importance of the fishing industry in this region. I also think it’s important to hold the meeting in what I can describe as a neutral place.”
Jeffrey said people on the Kenai Peninsula who wanted to weigh in during the meeting could “fly up to (Anchorage) pretty quickly.”
Of all of the fishery management plans considered by board members, Upper Cook Inlet fin fisheries — which include the drift and setnet commercial fisheries, commercial guided fishing, recreational sport fisheries, personal-use and educational fisheries — are by far the most complex.
Users generate several hundred proposals each cycle and the merits of each must be addressed by Alaska Department of Fish and Game staff, then by the public, then by board members in a process that has burgeoned into a two-week meeting, held every three years.
For the last five full board cycles, or 15 years, board members have chosen to meet in Anchorage to debate Upper Cook Inlet issues and this year was no different.
“I know that there has been a tremendous outcry for moving that meeting and I am certainly sensitive to that … I certainly respect that, but when I just look at the enormity of the subject matter … it seems like that big meeting belongs in the center of the area under consideration,” said Tom Kluberton, board member from Talkeetna, after he moved to hold the meeting in Anchorage. “My perception over the years is that the folks who are engaged in fisheries find a way to these meetings.”
Before discussing the full Upper Cook Inlet meeting, board members agreed to hold a work session on the central peninsula in 2016. Members then decided to hold the Kodiak meeting in Kodiak and the Lower Cook Inlet meeting in Homer before moving on to the Upper Cook Inlet meeting location.
Jeffrey, Kluberton and John Jensen, board member from Petersburg, said they considered Anchorage neutral territory and supported holding the meeting there.
“I know that living in Kodiak, if there’s meetings that are important to us, we just have to fly to Anchorage,” Jeffrey said. “But I am definitely sensitive to wanting the opportunity to participate.”
But the board was not unanimous in its support for an Anchorage-based meeting. Fritz Johnson, board member from Dillingham, said a meeting in the Kenai and Soldotna area was “long overdue.”
“I think the vast majority of people that attended the last Upper Cook Inlet meeting were from the Kenai-Soldotna area, most of the proposals are about that area. … I think we’re overdue for a meeting on the Upper Cook Inlet in that area.”
Ultimately the board voted 6-1 to hold the meeting in Anchorage from Feb. 15-28, 2017.
The 1999 meeting
The last time a full board meeting convened on the central Kenai Peninsula was in 1999 and, depending on who is recalling the event — it was either a regular meeting, or one in which board members feared for their safety.
As early as March of 1998, the Alaska Board of Fisheries chair, then John White, said he was considering moving the meeting out of the area due to “security concerns.”
At the time, White would not elaborate on who had been threatened or what threats had been made, just that “there has been clear message from some board members that there is a security risk and they want to look for a neutral meeting site.”
At the time, Cooper Landing and Girdwood were considered as alternative sites, though the board ultimately held the 1999 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Soldotna.
Clarion articles from that meeting show a meeting that was contentious, but not anymore so than current board meetings tend to be as user groups fight allocation battles for shares of Cook Inlet salmon. No single incident, at least not one that happened publicly, stands out as particularly volatile.
The board, however, did not reconvene in full on the peninsula for a decade after that meeting. Members held a work session in 2010 in Kenai.
In letters submitted to the board requesting that the next Upper Cook Inlet meeting happen on the central peninsula, some hold the 15-year-old meeting as a potential reason for subsequent boards to avoid meeting in the area.
“We still hear the occasional reference to safety issues regarding a Kenai area meeting,” wrote Kenai Area Fisherman’s Coalition Chairman Ed Schmitt, in his comments to the board. “It should be mentioned that those concerns are in reference to an isolated incident during the 1999 UCI meeting held in Soldotna. In 2013, Kenai hosted the “BOF King Salmon Task Force” meetings without incident. The panel, participants and audience were very cordial in their demeanor during difficult discussion from very diverse groups. This should be testament that our area can host a safe and productive UCI BOF meeting process.”
According to the Kenai Peninsula legislative delegation’s letter to the board, the incident was unfortunate, but overblown.
“… (A)voiding the Central Peninsula area for (Board of Fisheries) meetings for almost 15 years seems a bit over-reactive for a group comprised of professionals and knowledgeable fishermen who know and understand the passions of those who make their living from Alaska waters.”
Kenai Peninsula setnetter Gary Hollier said he remembered one contentious incident, but did not think it merited the notoriety it had gotten.
“I remember exactly what happened,” he said.
A former board member, Carl Rosier, got up to testify during the 1999 meeting.
Hollier said Rosier had been responsible for a board vote that resulted in setnetters being closed on a weekend that resulted in the loss of a lot of fish.
“He got up to testify and somebody in the room called this guy a ‘fat liar.’ Hollier said, with a laugh.
Rosier and another man whom Hollier identified as longtime sportfishing advocate Bob Penney called an Alaska State Trooper over and indicated that Hollier had been responsible for the outburst.
“She said, what did you tell him? I said ‘You’re a fat liar.’ Why? What did he say I called him?” Hollier said. “There could have been other incidents, but I think that’s the big incident.”
Hollier said he could not recall anyone being specifically threatened during the meeting.
“The whole thing was stupid,” he said. “The stigma that this area is dangerous to board members is stupid. It just gets heated.”
Hollier, who has attended several board meetings in Anchorage since the incident, said he would continue spending several thousand dollars a meeting to do so — he also doesn’t think he is the only reason several subsequent iterations of the board have chosen not to meet on the Central Peninsula.
“If they wanted to hold it here, they would. It’s all political,” he said.
During the 2014 Board of Fisheries meetings, more than 200 people showed up to testify on the weekend leading up to Super Bowl Sunday. At least 470 public comments were submitted before the meeting and another 270 submitted during the meeting.
Yet, not everyone felt like they had ample opportunity to weigh in during the meeting.
William Faulkner, an Eagle River resident and commercial setnet fisherman, ran out of money for a hotel room in Anchorage after the first weekend.
John McCombs of Ninilchik, who submitted 26 proposals for the meeting, traveled more than 180 miles one-way to Anchorage to talk about his proposals. McCombs spoke frequently throughout the meetings as opportunities for public testimony arose.
Typically, the board takes up a proposal and, if it is contentious, board members will call for a recess and spend time discussing alternatives with audience members “off-the-record” before convening to debate and decide on an issue.
During the 2014 meeting, hundreds were available for discussion, but attendance dropped fast after the first weekend and by the mid-February end of the meeting, the audience was primarily composed of people who represented fishing organizations.
McCombs, who is on the board for the United Cook Inlet Drift Association, a commercial drift gillnetting advocacy organization, said at the time that without financial help, he would have been unable to attend the full meeting.
He estimated that he would spend about $500 on food and transportation over the course of the meeting.
Hollier, said he’d spend about $3,000 to attend the full meeting, during a previous Clarion interview.
“It’s a big commitment,” he said. “The average person cannot take time off from work, cannot take their time to come up here.”
The lone board member who voted to hold the full board meeting outside of Anchorage, Fritz Johnson, said he thought there were voices missing from the debate.
“I think the voices least heard were Alaskans not specifically aligned with either group,” Johnson wrote during a post-2014 meeting email.
Kenai City Council member Brian Gabriel and City Manager Rick Koch traveled to Juneau to lobby board members to hold the meeting on the Kenai Peninsula.
“We were a little bit surprised and disappointed also,” Gabriel, who is also a commercial setnet fisherman, said after the board’s vote. “Considering the amount of work that was put in … I thought there’d be a little bit better discussion during deliberation.”
The Kenai Peninsula Borough and cities of Homer, Kenai, Seldovia, Seward and Soldotna sent the board a joint resolution asking for the next Upper Cook Inlet board meeting to be held on the Kenai Peninsula.
Gabriel said it was frustrating to see all of the work that went into getting cities and the borough to present a unified voice to the board be ignored.
Gabriel and Koch said a work session scheduled to be held on the peninsula felt like a compromise.
“They think they addressed the concerns of the peninsula residents by including the one-day public testimony ahead of the work session,” Gabriel said.
“It’s just sort of an interesting scenario because that work session will be a couple of months ahead of the meeting … whether or not the public comment would be on the record regarding Upper Cook Inlet proposals is a question I had.”
Koch said he felt that the work session was “the bone that got thrown our way.”
Rashah McChesney is the city editor for the Peninsula Clarion. She can be reached at email@example.com.