The Alaska Board of Fisheries will hold its Southeast meeting in Anchorage after all.
The board voted 4-2 against moving the meeting back to Ketchikan despite dozens of comments from Southeast’s fishermen, tribal entities, elected officials and others urging it to hold the meeting inside the region that would be affected by more than 150 proposals.
The Board of Fish had been set to hold its Southeast Finfish & Shellfish meeting in Ketchikan earlier this month, but a coronavirus outbreak caused it to be postponed.
When the meeting was rescheduled for Anchorage two months later, fishermen, subsistence harvesters and others complained, pointing out that a March meeting could cut into fishing seasons or cut off constituents from the process.
So the Board of Fish — which sets regulations for commercial, subsistence and sport fisheries around the state — met Thursday to decide whether to move the two-week Southeast meeting back to Ketchikan.
Dozens wrote comments to the board, including Ketchikan’s PeaceHealth Medical Center. The health provider commented in support of the Southeast meeting taking place in Ketchikan in March, despite the risk of COVID-19, saying the medical system in the area is well-equipped to handle tens of thousands of visitors.
But despite comments urging the move back to Southeast, a four-member majority of the board voted to keep the meeting in Anchorage. John Jensen, the board’s only member residing in Southeast Alaska, said he appreciated the public comment but was concerned about logistics.
“A lot of people have made their plans based on our plan to go to Anchorage — like myself,” Jensen told the board Thursday afternoon. “[…] much to the disappointment of a lot of my people that live around here in Petersburg, I’m going to get chewed out for this — but my vote is going to be to keep the meeting in Anchorage and keep the plans we’ve already made along with that.”
Jensen also suggested the possible solution of skipping the Southeast Alaska meeting this cycle and resuming in 2024. The last regional finfish & shellfish meeting was in Sitka in 2018.
After the move to Anchorage was announced, Ketchikan Rep. Dan Ortiz worked with local officials and board staff to arrange availability in March at Ketchikan’s Ted Ferry Civic Center. Other state senators and representatives from Southeast Alaska wrote to the board in favor of holding the meeting in the region.
Board member Israel Payton criticized what he termed “political interference” by Alaska lawmakers.
“I’ve heard from, quite honestly, the politicians that have been involved with us to keep politics out of the Board of Fish, and I feel a tremendous amount of political pressure from those same politicians to get in the board business and try to augment what’s what we view as best for the board and the process,” Payton explained. “I don’t take kindly to that. That being said, I appreciate what they’re doing for their stakeholders.”
Petersburg’s Jensen, who also serves on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, agreed.
“The reason this state came into being was to take government out of [the] management of fish,” Jensen stated, “And being respectful for our legislators, and I’m not trying to make it sound bad, but governmental agencies running fisheries has never worked very well in the history of the United States — or any other country for that matter — as far back as  when the Magna Carta was written.”
Board of Fish chair Märit Carlson-Van Dort reiterated the challenges of trying to hold large public meetings with many postponed and rescheduled.
“It is literally almost balanced on a pinhead, considering all of the fisheries and all of the other timing and scheduling conflicts that present and have been presented,” Carlson-Van Dort explained.
But McKenzie Mitchell of Fairbanks said her priority was holding the meeting where the fisheries are.
“I understand that the schedules are challenging and it will be challenging to have both the statewide and the Southeast meetings back to back,” Mitchell stated, “But I am okay with doing that. It’s important for me to make sure that we have a Southeast meeting in Southeast Alaska.”
Mitchell and Willow-based board member John Wood — who called for the special meeting — voted in favor of moving the meeting back to Ketchikan, but the motion failed, keeping the Southeast meeting location in Anchorage.
The comment period for the 153 proposals before the Board of Fish for the Southeast Alaska meeting has been extended until February 23.
The Alaska Board of Fisheries’ Southeast finfish & shellfish meeting will take place in Anchorage at the Egan Center from March 10-22. Given the location of the meeting, the board stated it will accept remote public testimony from select Alaska Department of Fish & Game offices. The board has not specified whether that is the only form of remote testimony that will be accepted.