By Jenny Neyman
Local efforts to host a Board of Fisheries meeting on Upper Cook Inlet issues in the Kenai area have again netted no results.
In a somewhat circuitous discussion Dec. 8, the Alaska Board of Fisheries underlined its decision from a year before to hold its 2017 Upper Cook Inlet meeting in Anchorage, rather than moving it to the Kenai Peninsula.
The board hasn’t held an Upper Cook Inlet meeting on the Kenai since 1999, despite regular pleas from municipal governments, fishing organizations, business groups and individuals to do so. The board first decided on Anchorage in October 2014 during a work session held in Juneau, but a problem with the venue led the scheduling issue to resurface in October this year, prompting another round of requests to hold the meeting on the central Kenai Peninsula. Gov. Bill Walker was among those writing letters asking the board to consider a location change for the Upper Cook Inlet meeting, even pledging to come to the meeting if it’s held on the central peninsula.
The board voted 4-3 to address the location issue at its Bristol Bay meeting, held last week in Anchorage, but that didn’t stop board members from grousing about the discussion.
“I agree with the other board members that this is a real distraction on a meeting that I felt required our full attention. I guess I’m very disappointed in that, that we would be getting so many letters and so many comments right in the middle of an important meeting for some other folks,” said Bob Mumford.
The board spent over a half an hour Dec. 8 debating both sides of various points, fairness being one. Board member Reed Morisky listed the seven fishery allocation criteria the board is tasked to consider in making fishery decisions as justification for holding the meeting in Anchorage, under the argument that the majority of the sport- and personal-use participants in the Kenai-area fisheries live in Anchorage or the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
As for fishery users on the Kenai, board member John Jensen said that Anchorage meetings aren’t that difficult to attend, especially with web streaming of proceedings and agendas posted online.
“They can come up when they need to do public presentations or talk to the board members. We’re not hiding. Anchorage is an easy place to get to for all user groups,” he said.
Sue Jeffrey and Fritz Johnson also cited allocation criteria, but in support of meeting in Kenai.
“We referenced the importance of each fishery to the economy of the region and the local area in which the fishery is located, and I believe that the local area, in this case, with regard to meeting location, has been neglected for too long,” Johnson said. “… I just wonder if, given the different nature of the urban areas in and around Anchorage, that there’s a kind of tyranny of the majority that impacts the more traditional residents of the Kenai Peninsula that we might want to think about in terms of keeping the meeting in Anchorage.”
Budgetary issues became another kickball. The board, like all areas of state government, is likely facing budget cuts this year. To Orville Huntington, that’s reason to hold the meeting in Anchorage, where staff is already located.
“I can’t support this proposal, or any proposal at this time to move any meetings away from central locations,” he said.
Johnson, though, thinks that’s all the more reason to meet in Kenai next time.
“I’d suggest if we don’t hold this meeting on the peninsula at this point in time, while we can, the chances that we will hold one there in the future is extremely limited,” he said.
Johnson also pointed out that groups in Kenai had offered free meeting space and local transportation to help mitigate costs. The mayors of Kenai, Soldotna and the Kenai Peninsula Borough wrote a joint letter to the board committing to service savings that would equal an estimated $61,000.
Jensen found that unpalatable.
“Now we start having people offering us money to come to these places and have meetings. That’s inappropriate, as far as I’m concerned, and it makes me even less inclined to go down there,” Jensen said.
Advocacy from the Kenai Peninsula to host the meeting got batted around, with some members finding it an indication that Kenai voices want to be heard. Mumford spoke of feeling political pressure, and others made note of grumbling and even outbursts in the room.
“This has been an interesting process. I feel like we’re in the middle of a soccer game, and I’m the ball being kicked in both directions, and almost threatened — if we don’t go one way or don’t go another, the political tide will be against me,” he said.
Jeffrey suggested splitting the meeting, holding parts that pertain most to Kenai-area fishery users on the peninsula, and the rest of the meeting in Anchorage. Board chair Tom Kluberton didn’t agree.
“The fisheries in this area are inextricably interconnected. … I don’t think there’s a single issue that’s germane only to one area or the other. The road system connects these places and so much of the fishing pressure comes from both directions,” he said.
In the end, Jeffrey and Johnson voted to move the meeting to Kenai, with the five other members opposed. The Upper Cook Inlet meeting is scheduled for Feb. 22 – March 9, 2017. A work session prior to the meeting is being scheduled for Kenai, and the next Lower Cook Inlet meeting is scheduled for Homer.