The 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries will be held in Anchorage, as planned and as usual.
The board made the call by a 5-2 vote at the tail end of its Bristol Bay finfish meeting, also in Anchorage. Only two board members, commercial fishermen Sue Jeffrey and Fritz Johnson, voted in favor of a proposal moving the meeting from Anchorage to the Kenai Peninsula, where the board hasn’t held an Upper Cook Inlet meeting since the last millennium.
“Maybe next time,” said member John Jensen of Petersburg, drawing an outraged cry from the audience.
“Why maybe?” called John McCombs, a peninsula fisherman and board member of United Cook Inlet Drift Association.
Board director Glenn Haight and others quickly warned McCombs to be quiet while member Sue Jeffrey began making her comments, “hopefully without feeling threatened,” she added.
“Threatening” was the exact term Jensen used to characterize the Upper Cook Inlet meeting issue after the matter had closed.
“I’m glad to have it behind us,” he said.
Member Robert Mumford said he had no compunction against moving the meeting to the peninsula, but ended up voting against the move, not wanting to “upset the apple cart.” Mumford hinted that he felt pressured.
“I feel like we’re in the middle of a soccer game, and at least I’m the ball,” said Mumford.
Walker appointed Mumford to the board in May following the failed appointments of Roland Maw and Robert Ruffner. Mumford has not yet been confirmed by the Legislature.
Board members listed fears of influence peddling, political perceptions, security, convenience and fairness. Jensen said the board goes through pains to make meeting agendas so stakeholders can time their visits to the 14-day meeting. The board’s consensus was that Anchorage, at the center of the Upper Cook Inlet area, is the logical choice.
“If we’re going to be fair to the majority of users, it’s having a meeting in Anchorage,” said Jensen. “The user groups don’t have to spend that much time up here. If they have to come for one part of the meeting, they know where it is.”
Peninsula residents have long argued that the board process is too complex and nuanced to go for only one day, and that the process is therefore skewed against those who can’t make the trip.
Ed Schmitt, the chairman of the Kenai Area Fishermen’s Coalition’s board, said the vote is a blow to the Kenai Peninsula. Two weeks in Anchorage is prohibitively expensive for those without large financial interest in meeting outcomes, so many people who use the fisheries are not heard, he said.
“The community is centered around the Kenai River,” Schmitt said. “It’s in our back yard. It’s what we use. It’s a very frustrating process for the people who are most affected by it.”
A potential meeting relocation has been in the spotlight since November, when two letters supporting a meeting relocation made their way to the board, including one from Gov. Bill Walker.
The board had scheduled the meeting for Anchorage last year, and voiced resentment at being made to consider it again. The Bristol Bay meeting, board members said, suffered from the “distraction” of the Upper Cook Inlet relocation issue.
“All this went on during another region’s meeting,” said board member Orville Huntington. “I don’t think it’s fair to the people of Bristol Bay.”
Walker wrote a letter to the board Oct. 21, asking it to consider changing the location and promising to attend if it were held on the peninsula.