Stakeholders worry after federal fisheries council, citing profanity, tightens comment policies

Members of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council at their April 2021 meeting. (Screenshot from Adobe Connect)

The council that manages Alaska’s federal fisheries has tightened its public comment policies. The North Pacific Fishery Management Council says recent profane comments had prompted the move. Some fishermen and community organizers say that’s a bunch of bull.

For all the controversy and emotion that can accompany fisheries debates, the federal council that manages fisheries in the North Pacific says it hadn’t ever received public comments with explicit language — until last month.

North Pacific Fishery Management Council members like Bill Twiet said at the council’s April meeting they worried that crude language and personal attacks could prevent people from speaking up.

“We lose collectively — the council loses, but also the council family loses — when people choose not to engage with us because they look at some of that testimony and they think, ‘If that’s the cost of speaking up, I don’t want to,’” Tweit said.

Council members say five of the nearly 600 comments submitted to the council last month contained vulgar language or personal attacks. The council’s executive director says his staff reached out to the commenters and asked them to resubmit, sans swearing. One did.

But those five comments were apparently enough to prompt changes to the council’s written comment policies. That includes a profanity filter, tighter deadlines for submitting comments and some discretionary power for council staff to move — or remove — off-topic comments.

And that’s prompted outcry from longtime fisheries advocates. The head of the Alaska Longline Fishermen’s Association, Linda Behnken, says she’s never seen the council move so quickly.

“I mean, never seen them bring something up, take action, boom, done without more opportunity for meaningful engagement,” she said.

Behnken says she worries that the new powers could lead to censorship of comments that council staff claim aren’t explicitly relevant to the finer technical points of a particular issue.

“There’s no guideline per issue for the staff to fall back on in saying ‘This is on-topic or off-topic,’” Behnken said. “If people are talking about how something affects them and what their concerns are, that’s on topic, as far as I’m concerned. As long as they’re doing it respectfully, then we should be welcoming that input to the process.”

The North Pacific Fishery Management Council’s executive director David Witherell defended the council’s quick decision.

“Had they put out a draft and taken a few meetings to review, kind of like the way a regulatory process might work, well, it keeps the door open for those profanity and other offensive comments that could be made for yet more meetings,” Witherell said.

He also noted that the council has expanded the types of public comments it accepts to include everything from handwritten notes to faxes and emails.

“We built a comment portal such that we made it get so easy on, all you have to do is click that button and start typing your comment, and you’re done,” he said.

But community organizer Heather Bauscher of the Sitka Conservation Society says it’s not all that simple.

“The complexities of the system in place already contribute greatly to the inequalities here,” Bauscher said. “And I think that the average fisherman or rural subsistence user does not have the means to pick apart the details of an EIS [environmental impact statement] and various alternatives in order to speak to an issue. So I have significant concerns if they’re going to make rules about what is relevant or not relevant to an agenda item.”

And, Bauscher adds, with the hundreds of comments — both written and phoned in — the council was understandably behind schedule.

“They have their own social media page. If they wanted to help support public engagement, they could have done the same thing that we were doing, and they could have provided those action alerts or given people updates on when certain things were coming up so that it is easier for the public to participate,” she said.

Bauscher adds that not everyone has hours to sit on the phone or online to wait for an agenda item to come up.

“If they’re going to change things. It should be making it easier, not harder,” she said.

Some fishermen say the comment policy change points to a deeper-rooted problem. Sommers Cole is a Juneau-based gillnetter and fisheries organizer with SalmonState. He doesn’t condone foul language, but he points to boiling frustrations over issues like troubled subsistence fisheries in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta region, halibut and salmon bycatch taken by the trawl fleet and a feeling of being shut out of the process.

“I don’t think it’s the smartest thing to go cuss at the decision-making bodies. It’s a terrible idea, actually,” said Cole. “But they are comments that were from legitimate stakeholders that were, you know, close to the endpoint, and they’re frustrated. So they cuss at the council, or cussed in the comments. And the council’s response is to further ban cussing, rather than — I don’t know. I think there’s a root problem where fishermen and other stakeholders are frustrated because they don’t feel the process has been responsive to their needs.”

Witherell, the council’s executive director, says his staff would only delete comments as a last resort.

“I think people are nervous about — just nervous that somehow the staff is going to be taking out comments from people that maybe somebody doesn’t agree with. Definitely not. Really, that’s never going to be the case,” Witherell said.

The new written comment guidelines mean the comment portal will open once most of the council documents have been posted online — seven to 10 days before the meeting. It will close earlier to allow the staff time to censor offending language. And public comments won’t be posted online until the comment period has closed, meaning there can’t be any back and forth debate playing out on the website.

The new rules are timed to take effect before the council’s next meeting in mid-June.

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