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Fisheries

Fish, game boards take testimony on cuts

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KDLG News
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Public says cuts shouldn't impede access to fish, game rule-making.

 While Alaska’s governor was unveiling his budget proposal on Dec. 9, the state Boards of Fisheries and Game were grappling with how to accommodate future budget cuts.

The board support component of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game faces a budget shortfall this year, and is looking for ways to make the additional cuts that are expected in the years to come.  A joint committee that included members from each board met in Anchorage, to consider how to reduce spending on the process for developing fish and game regulations. The board took no action, and had little discussion, mostly listening to testimony from more than a dozen members of the public.

The options that have been floated so far include changing how often the board looks at each issue, asking those proposing changes to the fishery to pay a fee or otherwise changing the proposal process, and reducing expenses at each meeting.

The bottom-line at the half-day meeting?

Whatever has to be done, Alaskans appreciate the public process those boards afford them, and don’t want that compromised.

Gary Stevens from the Alaska Outdoor Council told the boards that his organization opposed any change that would diminish the public’s opportunity to participate in the rule-making process.

““We’re not at all interested in helping the department diminish the public’s ability to participate in the regulatory process by supporting any cuts to the board. We have a hard time understanding why any of the cuts need to come out of the statutorily protected process of regulating fish and game.”

Cook Inlet fisherman Paul Shadura agreed.

“I think it’s already cut down to the minimum,” he said. “I’m not sure you can go anywhere without harming the public process.”

The change that received the most discussion – mostly disapproval – would shift the board of fish from its current three-year cycle to a longer one, with each region considered every four or more years.

Dillingham’s Thomas Tilden told the board that a five-year cycle would make it harder for the fishery to keep pace with change.

“Things change rapidly, and new technology is going to create new fisheries, new ways of fishing,” he said. “And if you go on a five year cycle, you’ll get left behind.”

Gary Cline, another Dillingham resident, agreed.

“Don’t move the three-year cycle to five-year cycles,” he said. “I do agree that it is too long. Mainly because the decisions made at these meetings have such a huge impact on our Alaskan residents.”

Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp. CEO Norm Van Vactor said holding the meetings less frequently could leave fishery participants waiting too long for a necessary change, and asked the committee not to look to Anchorage meetings as a less costly alternative to meeting in rural Alaska communities periodically. His organization partnered with others and brought dozens of residents to Anchorage for the Bristol Bay finfish meeting held just prior to the committee session, at a high cost, Van Vactor said. BBEDC is also looking at supporting counting towers in the region, where Fish and Game has had to cut them because of budget issues. But it’s difficult for them, too, to pay for it all.

The testimony wasn't all fishermen and fisheries. Bristol Bay fisherman Jimmy Hurley also told the board that in some regions, the fish themselves can’t wait four or five years for the board to take action.

“I can’t see a five-year plan for king salmon,” Hurley said. “Look at the Yukon, Kuskokwim, you guys have dealt with that, they’re depleted.”

The boards did hear some support for changing the cycle from a few, including one individual with a long-time involvement in the processing industry in Juneau.

Testifiers also talked about the need to preserve the advisory committee process, including having in-person meetings and having Fish and Game staff on hand to participate.

Dillingham’s Gayla Hoseth said any effort to streamline the proposal process shouldn’t come at the expense of public participation.

“In regards to the proposal process, I think that individuals should still be able to submit proposals,” she said. “But I really do think that one voice is a strong voice. Because one voice could make a difference and a change and I don’t want it to where we don’t have that voice anymore.”

Some also suggested revenue sources for the boards and for Fish and Game in general, like using the permanent fund reserve to pay for counting towers. Alaska Backcountry Hunters and Anglers chair Mark Richards said that group is working on another source of revenue.

“Rather than look at cuts, we’d like the game side to look at producing more revenue via that hunting license increase,” he said.

The committee also heard a variety of ideas for small savings. Bristol Bay Native Association’s Gayla Hoseth said a change to how proposals are ordered in the proposal book could make the meeting run a little more efficiently, perhaps shortening the meeting. And Sitka commercial fisherman John Murray offered some other suggestions for the board – print fewer books filled with proposals, and consolidate finfish and shellfish meetings.

Others had additional ideas – reduce the number of staff from the Alaska Department of Fish and Game that attend each board of fish meeting, have advisory committees authorize antlerless moose hunts less frequently, and even look for corporate sponsorship for meeting venues.

Homer’s Dave Lyon said he didn’t have any ideas of what the silver bullet was to save the boards money, but like others attending, he wanted to talk about what shouldn’t be eliminated.

“As we look at funding cuts, we don’t cut the (advisory committees) to the point that we don’t have a voice,” Lyon said.

Some also suggested giving advisory committees a larger role in vetting proposals, going so far as to say that if a proposal didn’t have AC support, it shouldn’t make it the board for consideration.

The joint committee is expected to meet again in January in Fairbanks after the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim meeting to discuss the issue further. There’s also a survey on the joint board website to get more public input, and Fish and Game is working on updating a review that identifies possible cost-savings for all of its divisions.

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