- Associated Press - Monday, June 8, 2015

Here is a sampling of editorial opinions from Alaska newspapers:

June 3, 2015

Alaska Journal of Commerce: Walker might have two more fish seats to fill

For those who follow fish politics, Gov. Bill Walker has had a rough time filling a single seat on the Alaska Board of Fisheries. Now he may have to start thinking about new names for the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

First, he told previous Board of Fisheries Chair Karl Johnstone in January that he would not be reappointed after his term ends this June 30; Johnstone resigned in response.

Walker then made a snap decision to replace Johnstone with Roland Maw, who Johnstone and all his fellow board members had denied an interview for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner job.

Maw withdrew Feb. 20 when it was about to come to light that he was under criminal investigation in Montana for illegally obtaining resident hunting and fishing privileges in that state while receiving the same in Alaska.

That led Walker to nominate Soldotna conservationist Robert Ruffner to replace Maw, and Ruffner was narrowly defeated in the Legislature 30-29 after sportfishing groups rallied against him based on his support from the commercial fishing industry.

As if it couldn’t get more bizarre, Walker’s Boards and Commissions Director Karen Gillis resigned in protest May 13 when she was told the governor intended to nominate Roberta “Bobbi” Quintavell to replace Ruffner.

Rumors of Quintavell’s selection began to spread before the official announcement, and commercial fishing groups protested to the governor’s office based on her being the preferred choice of the Kenai River Sportfishing Association that led the fight to sink Ruffner’s nomination.

Walker changed his mind again, apparently, and picked outgoing Board of Game member Robert “Bob” Mumford on May 18.

Now, as this issue of the Journal goes to press, the North Pacific council that governs Alaska’s federal fisheries 3 to 200 miles offshore is meeting in Sitka with more than half the agenda dedicated to a single action: cutting the amount of halibut bycatch allowed in the Bering Sea groundfish fisheries that include pollock, Pacific cod and flatfish.

However, the council will take its final action without two members from Alaska who are being recused based on their interests in those same Bering Sea fisheries.

Among the 11 members, this decision by the heads of the Department of Commerce legal division removes Alaska’s majority voting block on the council and essentially makes the federal designated rep from National Marine Fisheries Service the swing vote on any decision.

By law, the appointees to the council must be drawn from industry stakeholders, putting them under a different set of conflict of interest guidelines than other federal bodies. However, no member may have greater than a 10 percent stake in the fisheries affected by his or her vote.

This brings us to the Alaska members being recused: Simon Kinneen of the Norton Sound Economic Development Corp. and David Long of Glacier Fish Co.

Commerce Department attorneys determined that NSEDC, which is the Community Development Quota group for the area, and its subsidiaries harvest more 13 percent of the nearly 2 million metric tons of fish allocated in the Bering Sea.

Glacier Fish Co. is tied to NSEDC, and Long was also recused from voting based on a greater than 10 percent interest in the fisheries.

On the one hand, the fact that NSEDC and its subsidiaries alone now harvest more than 10 percent of Bering Sea fish is a success for the CDQ program that began in 1992 and allocates 10 percent of the total Bering Sea harvest among 65 Western Alaska villages divided among six CDQ groups.

On the other, it means that NSEDC has grown too big to have an employee on the council.

Former Trident Seafoods executive Dave Benson tried to get around the 10 percent threshold in 2008 first by changing jobs to work for a Trident subsidiary, which led him to being recused from a vote in 2009; he subsequently formed a consulting company that allowed him to avoid the 10 percent rule and continue voting on Bering Sea issues.

New financial disclosure rules and greater attention to the clients of consultants who work for their former employers means the Benson loophole is effectively closed, as it should be.

Kinneen was also recused from a crucial vote in April related to lowering chinook salmon bycatch limits for the pollock fleet in the Bering Sea, based on NSEDC’s stakes in that fishery.

Taken to a logical conclusion, if Kinneen and Long can’t vote on halibut bycatch based on the 10 percent threshold, they shouldn’t even be allowed to vote on the annual Bering Sea harvest quotas.

If a council member from Alaska cannot vote on monumental issues such as salmon and halibut bycatch, they must step down to give the state its full voice on the federal level on issues of grave importance to our state.

Walker has enough headaches right now and doesn’t need another one, but this is the job he asked for.

___

June 4, 2015

Peninsula Clarion: King numbers give reason for optimism

Cautiously optimistic.

That’s how we’re feeling right now as we see sonar counts of king salmon headed up Kenai Peninsula rivers and streams.

The numbers might not qualify as spectacular, but they’re much better than they’ve been for the past few years, and we hope it’s a sign of better returns in years to come.

As of Monday, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sonar estimate for kings salmon on the Kenai River was 960 fish, compared to just over 200 at the same point in the previous two years. Likewise, on the Anchor River, the sonar count stood at 1,948 kings as of Wednesday, compared to 610 at this point last year.

Biologists say it’s too soon to determine if the king salmon runs are indeed improving, or if the run timing is early this year. This early in the season, there is still a large margin of error in projecting the run strength, and there isn’t enough evidence to suggest that conservation measures for king salmon should be lifted.

In a recent interview, Fish and Game Sportfish Area Management Biologist Robert Begich told the Clarion that managers need to see kings returning in much greater numbers before restrictions can be lifted.

“A few hundred fish a day, that’s what we want to see rather than just dozens trickling in each day,” Begich said.

King salmon recovery is not going to happen in one season. Our hope is that after a few more seasons - maybe longer - runs will return to previous strengths.

In the mean time, the situation calls for continued patience. This year, there has been opportunity for anglers to harvest king salmon, even with restrictions in place. That’s certainly an improvement over recent years when, even during the brief time fisheries may have been open, there wasn’t much in the way of fish to catch. It’s a small step, but a step forward nonetheless.

And while many anglers dream of catching a Kenai king, there are still plenty of other fish in the sea. Red salmon are starting to show. Many are anticipating a good summer of fishing for grayling, rainbow trout and Dolly Varden. Halibut fishing is steady. For those who just want to catch a fish, there are plenty of options.

We’re grateful to have those options, and we hope that in the future, kings will continue to be a part of that list.

___

June 7, 2015

Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Legislators should buckle down, end budget uncertainty

Ten thousand members of the Alaska workforce stand to be laid off in three and a half weeks. But you’d never know it from watching the Legislature during the past several days. While there has been plenty of rhetoric and attempts to direct blame, real discussions of finding a budget compromise that would keep the state running past July 1 were seemingly nonexistent in the seven days following Fairbanks Sen. Pete Kelly’s dismantling of the compromise crafted by the House majority and minority caucuses.

In 24 days and counting, the Alaska government will shut down. This is unacceptable.

With no apparent sense of urgency, the Senate and House gaveled in for minutes-long technical sessions on Friday, did no business and adjourned until Monday afternoon. While some hoped discussion would continue through the weekend in the conference committee tasked with resolving the discrepancies between budgets passed by the House and Senate, those hopes were also dashed in short order. Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Big Lake, who co-chairs the conference committee, announced shortly after the House and Senate recessed for the weekend that the committee wouldn’t meet until Monday morning. With thousands of state employees unsure whether they will be able to afford living expenses after the end of the month, the budget crisis apparently doesn’t merit working weekends for members of the Legislature.

What’s most infuriating about the impasse over the budget is that there’s so little monetary difference between the budgets passed by the House and Senate. After being handed a compromise budget passed in the House, Sen. Kelly removed about $30 million in compromise items such as funding for state worker cost-of-living adjustments, senior benefits, early education and the Alaska Marine Highway System. He also shifted about $16 million in money slated to maintain education formula funding levels to be a one-time allocation instead. That sum is equal to a little more than half a percent of the total budget. In the event of a government shutdown, the required leave payouts to state employees would likely be equal to or greater than the entire disputed amount - and that’s without accounting for the massive amount of other damage a shutdown would incur upon Alaska.

That damage would be severe and widespread. Alaska’s unemployment rate would surge from its current 6.7 percent to more than 9 percent, the highest of any state in the U.S. Inevitably, many state employees laid off from their jobs would choose to find other employment either in Alaska or Outside, extending the period of recovery for the state long after passage of a budget, as workers would have to be hired for vacant positions and trained. The state’s credit rating would be in serious danger of a downgrade, as ratings agencies tend to view government inability to do business as a negative.

But the greatest impact on Alaska from a shutdown would likely be felt by Alaskans and those visiting the state. When state ferries shut down July 1 and strand hundreds of state residents and tourists along the marine highway, Alaska’s predicament would turn from a local frustration to a national laughingstock. State workers living paycheck-to-paycheck would have difficult decisions to make about housing, food and finding employment - after all, the Legislature’s inability to pass a budget in a full session and two special sessions wouldn’t exactly inspire confidence in their ability to make a deal quickly.

The budget situation is bad, and Alaskans’ faith in their government is already damaged. A shutdown would be catastrophic. For the good of the state and its people, legislators must acknowledge the urgency and seriousness of the situation facing Alaska and hammer out a budget deal.

We’re 24 days from the brink. There’s no more time for days off.

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