Locals might know Indy Walton from the ice rink, where he coached the Soldotna High School hockey team. Or they might recognize him as a financial adviser with the local branch of Edward Jones.
Now, he’s on deck to join the powerful state Board of Fisheries, the body that makes decisions about fish allocation and management in Alaska’s waters. Gov. Mike Dunleavy appointed Walton to the seventh open seat on the board Sept. 3, months after his previous nominee was rejected by the Alaska Legislature.
Walton’s home is Soldotna. But he owns a sport fishing lodge in Igiugig and commercial fishes in Bristol Bay, both on his drift boat, Sniper, and overseeing his family’s set-net site.
He said he’s been following the politics of the board for decades. But it wasn’t until this year that he considered throwing his hat in the ring, after friends from commercial and sport fish sectors told him he should go for it.
“The day of the deadline to apply came. I had a couple people in particular say, ‘Indy, you gotta do this, and you gotta do this today,’" he said. "And so I’m like, ‘What the heck. I’ll throw my name in there.’”
Walton started set-netting with family in the ’80s — first with his mom in Bristol Bay and then his grandfather in Kodiak. In the early 90s, Walton bought his own set-net permit in the bay. A decade after that, he and his mom bought a drift permit.
He said they’d joke they were double dipping, since they were fishing both from the boat and the beach.
“And so that’s what we named the boat. We named it Double Dippin," he said.
Though the practice of fishing both permits was not uncommon, the Board of Fish passed a rule prohibiting fishermen from using both set- and drift-netting gear within the same 24 hours. Walton said he transferred the set-net permit to the name of his then-6-year-old son, who fished with him on the boat every day. His son still fishes in Bristol Bay as a drift-netter, in a boat called Turbo.
Walton sees his experience in the commercial and sport sectors as an asset. He said he knows how to listen to the two user groups that have long vied over issues of allocation.
“When you start dividing ‘em, and you come between them and you set one group against the other, you’re not solving any problems, you’re just creating problems," Walton said.
Ben Mohr, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, said he thinks it’s valuable that Walton has both commercial and sport fishing experience to draw on.
“I think it’s incredibly important for board members to be able to understand all the different sectors and how they interact with each other," he said. "And how decisions in one sector may have impacts in another sector.”
Walton said there are no easy solutions to the fish warring in Cook Inlet. But he said one idea he’d consider for the Kenai River is limiting entry for sport fish guides, pointing to caps on halibut permits as an example of such a policy.
“I really believe that that decision to put a cap on it has actually benefited the halibut stocks," he said.
He said the biggest issue he sees in the Kenai River is the dwindling king population.
Kenai Peninsula set-netters have paired restrictions with the Kenai River king run. So when the king run is struggling, their season is cut short.
Walton said he knows some set-netters who struggled this year.
“And I really don’t think that they had to struggle that bad. I think everybody needs to struggle together to protect the kings. Not just one gear type, you know? It needs sacrifice on everybody’s part," Walton said.
Ken Coleman is a setnetter and vice president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen's Association.
He said it’s particularly important to have somebody on the board with knowledge of Cook Inlet, as the Board of Fish considers an agenda request from set-netters to change restrictions on their fishery before 2024.
“It’s refreshing to see somebody from Cook Inlet be appointed to the board," Coleman said. "It’s been decades since we’ve had somebody on the board that has an understanding of commercial fishing and all the sectors of the fishing community in Cook Inlet.”
Walton has been an outspoken critic of the controversial Pebble Mine project, and said he’s “100 percent opposed” to it for what it could do to the watershed in Bristol Bay.
That was a sticking point with Dunleavy’s last nominee, Abe Williams, an employee of the Pebble Partnership. He was rejected by the Alaska Legislature during his confirmation vote last May.
Extending limits on boat length in Bristol Bay was also a controversial topic during the confirmation process.
Some fishermen say extending the limit on commercial boats past 32 feet could expand opportunities for Bristol Bay fishermen. Others worry it would make it harder for local fishermen to compete.
In a Facebook post last December, Walton said he thought extending the limit could be good for some fishermen and that he supported eventually extending that limit, KSTK reported.
But Walton said in an interview that while he’s open-minded to the idea, he’s not for changing that policy at the moment. He said when it comes down to it, he’s “neutral.”
“I guess what I’m saying is I’m open-minded to hear both sides of that," he said.
Walton’s first meeting with the board will be this October, when it holds a work session in Anchorage.