In advance of scheduled confirmation hearings on nominees to the Board of Fisheries April 17 by the Alaska Legislature, the House Fisheries Committee on April 15 questioned and heard public testimony on April 15 on the four people proposed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
The four-hour hearing in Juneau, chaired by Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, began with nominees Israel Payton, Marit Carlson-Van Dort, Gerad Godfrey and Karl Johnstone being asked to declare if they had any conflict of interest with issues that come before the board, ranging from allocative and hatchery issues to intercept fisheries, the proposed Pebble mine and fish farms.
Only Payton was physically present at the hearing. The others responded by telephone.
Stutes and others questioned former fisheries board chairman Johnstone specifically on a commentary he had written for the Anchorage Daily News a little over two years ago in which he said farmed fish are the way of the future.
“Are you advocating for farmed salmon in the state of Alaska?” Stutes asked Johnstone, whose nomination was the most controversial.
Johnstone responded that it was simply an opinion piece “meant to get people thinking.” He did not, he said, favor developing farmed fish in Alaska.
Stutes said that all of his opinion pieces have expressed a bias toward commercial fisheries, and Johnstone responded, “I don’t have a bias. I try to get people thinking.”
In response to a question by Rep. Sarah Vance, R-Homer, regarding the future of commercial fishing in her region, the Kenai Peninsula, Johnstone said “there is a lot of competition for the resource, and that is really hard on the commercial fisheries … It’s very challenging, and it may seem unfair, but they have had to give up use for other users.
Rep. Garen Tarr, D-Anchorage, questioned Johnstone on whether he favored allocating more fish away from the commercial sector to other user groups.
“If you take gear out of the water it will benefit everybody who remains,” Johnstone said.
“In my district I represent all the fishermen, commercial, sport and personal use,” Vance said.
“In taking away from one group over the other, I have to resort to someone who will do no harm to any group.”
“This is a common property resource and has to be managed in the best interests of all Alaskans,” Johnstone said. “As times change, reasons change. I don’t discriminate. I call then as I see them.”
Following questioning of all four nominees by the committee, Stutes opened the meeting to public testimony, hearing from fish harvesters all over the state, some of whom were quite divided in their opinion of the nominees.
“The common property resources available are being strangled by commercial fishermen,” said Ron Somerville, Juneau, representing Territorial Sportsmen.
“I think balance is extremely important,” said Somerville, who endorsed all four candidates, as did Ben Mohr, executive director of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, Bill Iverson, Soldotna, president of the Alaska Outdoor Council, and Richard Yamada, Juneau, president of the Alaska Charter Association.
“The concept of pitting user groups against each other is the wrong way,” said Mark Vinsel, of Juneau. “I urge a ‘no’ vote on Karl Johnstone and don’t forward his name for consideration.”
Frances Leach, executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska, also opposed Johnstone’s nomination, as did Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen’s Alliance.
“We have not found him approachable at (Board of Fisheries) meetings,” said Hansen, whose alliance is a multi-gear group.
Testimony from those engaged in sportfishing overall backed Johnstone as someone who would bring balance to the board, while commercial harvesters took aim at Johnstone as unacceptable.
Andy Hall, Eagle River, a setnetter and president of the Kenai River Fishermen’s Association, opposed Johnstone, but said he was nervous about sending letters opposing Johnstone because he feared retaliation.
“He has not had a deep commitment to science-based management,” said Linda Behnken, Sitka, executive director of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association. “He has disregarded the impact to coastal communities. We need managers, policy makers who will take care of the resources.”
“We are opposed to the whole slate,” said Susan Daugherty, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Seiners Association.
Several commercial harvesters also testified, including John Renner of Cordova District Fishermen United, who said CDFU opposed Johnstone’s appointment.
“Coastal Alaska is scared to death with these appointments to the Board of Fisheries,” Renner said. “This is old time Alaska. Coastal Alaska depends on these salmon fisheries.”
Chelsea Haisman, a commercial harvester and executive director of CDFU, also opposed Johnstone, because of “his bias against commercial fishermen.”
“NVE (Native Village of Eyak) supports fisheries for all user groups,” said John Whissel, natural resources coordinator for NVE. “Johnstone does not believe in science and does not use science to make decisions. That is unacceptable.”
But Clem Tillion, a retired commercial fisherman and former state legislator from Halibut Cove who remains very active in fish politics, said he supports Johnstone. He warned that if Johnstone is rejected by legislators “you’re going to get another sport fish advocate.
“I’ll stick with the devil I know,” Tillion said.