The Senate Resources Committee held a much-belated public hearing on Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s appointees to the Alaska Board of Fisheries on Friday.
Central peninsula District O Sen. Peter Micciche chaired the hearing.
“This meeting really is for you. We had our session cut short in Juneau because of COVID, obviously. And we did not have an opportunity to go through our confirmations,” Micciche said.
Appointees have been serving without a confirmation vote in the Legislature, which drew a lot of criticism in public testimony. Susan Doherty is the executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association.
“And I would implore the Senate and the House Fisheries Committees to work on legislation and/or amendments to the state constitution, if necessary, to correct this issue,” Doherty said. “People who are given such power should be seasoned, knowledgeable and fully vetted by the confirmation process, period.”
The most controversial appointee is Abe Williams, originally from King Salmon, who now lives in Anchorage. He has been a commercial fisherman and now owns a company that provides services to the fishing fleet in Bristol Bay. He is also the director of regional affairs for the Pebble Partnership. Committee members questioned him about how he would handle that conflict. Williams said he would not vote on issues related to Bristol Bay, just as he recused himself from voting when he was the president of the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association.
“When I held that position, I worked right next to the rest of my colleagues in the fishery, and whenever a conflict arose in regard to Pebble, I clearly stated that and bowed out,” Williams said. “And again, I hold myself to the highest integrity in that regard and will continue to do so.”
In over an hour of testimony from the public, the vast majority spoke against Williams’ confirmation. Rebecca Knight, from Petersburg, and her family are commercial fishermen in Bristol Bay. She says Williams being on the board will disenfranchise Bristol Bay if he has to recuse himself from votes.
“Certainly there are much more qualified and unconflicted individuals who could represent the fishing communities, instead of the immediate conflict upon appointment introduced by Mr. Williams’ association with the Pebble Partnership,” Knight said. “The Board of Fish needs members who can vote on as many issues as possible without automatically being conflicted out.”
Karen McGahan, of Nikiski, and her family are set-netters at Salamatof. She points out there’s already a former Pebble employee on the board, Marit Carlson-Van Dort, of Anchorage.
“You have already one person who works for Pebble Mine up until 2018. Now another one is currently getting a paycheck from Pebble Mine. I would suggest those people should be on a mining board and that you should have some different qualifications that you’re looking at for people on the fish board,” McGahan said.
Another frequent complaint was the lack of rural representation on the board. Dunleavy submitted John Jensen, of Petersburg, for reappointment to the seat he’s held since 2003. He’s been a commercial fisherman and owns a boat rental company. He’s the only board member who lives in a coastal community.
A new appointee, McKenzie Mitchell, lives in Fairbanks. The rest of the board lives in Anchorage or the Mat-Su area.
Dorothy Shockley grew up subsistence fishing on the Yukon and Tanana rivers. She wants at least one board member familiar with her region, not to mention the vast majority of the rest of the state that is not geographically represented.
“It’s essential that at least one board member has extensive knowledge of and experience with Yukon River fisheries and their people and understand that fisheries is not a sport to us. Fisheries is our lives. Without salmon, we don’t experience, not only our cultural experience, but we don’t feed ourselves or our families,” Shockley said.
Gov. Dunleavy also appointed John Wood, of Willow, a retired attorney and former aide to Dunleavy when he was in the Senate. Mitchell studied fisheries management and has worked in the hunting and fishing industry in Alaska.
Wood and Mitchell didn’t garner much testimony. Jensen had several people speak in favor of his confirmation. A couple spoke in favor of retaining Robert Ruffner, former executive director of the Kenai Watershed Forum, whose term expired last year. Dunleavy did not forward his name for reappointment.
Only two people spoke in favor of Williams. One is a current Pebble employee. The other was Ben Mohr, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association. He spoke in favor of all four appointees. He also has been employed by Pebble.
The House Fisheries Committee will hear public testimony on the appointees at 10 a.m. Thursday.
All four names will go to a joint legislative confirmation hearing for a vote, though it’s not yet known when that vote will happen.