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Bristol Bay backlash after Walker taps Ruffner to replace Johnson on Fish Board

Molly Dischner/KDLG

For 40 years, someone from Bristol Bay has sat on the state Board of Fisheries. Next fall, that might not be the case. 

Governor Bill Walker announced five nominations to the state board of Fish and Game on Tuesday. On the list again this year for a Fish Board seat is Robert Ruffner of Kenai, who would replace Fritz Johnson, a commercial fisherman from Dillingham. If confirmed, it will be the first time the Fish Board would not have a member from Bristol Bay.

When Governor Bill Walker announced five appointments to the state boards of fish and game on Feb. 2, he named a Soldotna scientist for the seat currently held by Dillingham’s Fritz Johnson. That was a surprise for many in the Bay-- including long-time drift fisherman Robin Samuelson, a former BOF member himself.

“This is a sad day for Bristol Bay,” Samuelson said shortly after the announcement was made. “Fisheries is everybody’s livelihood in Bristol Bay and I’m very disappointed in the governor’s action.”

Johnson, also a Bristol Bay drifter, wanted to serve a second term on the board. He was appointed to replace Vince Webster, of King Salmon, who replaced Dillingham’s Robert Heyano. As far back as 1975, when the board of fish and game was split into two, someone from Bristol Bay has sat on the board of fish. Dillingham’s Herman Schroeder was the first appointee from the region. Samuelson said he wasn’t expecting the governor to change that pattern.

“I could see him replacing Fritz, but it would seem that with having the biggest herring fishery in the state of Alaska, having the biggest salmon fishery in the world, that we’d be afforded a board of fish member,” Samuelson said.

Norm Van Vactor, CEO of Bristol Bay Economic Development Association, said the news was a surprise to him as well, and although he’s been a supporter of the governor - he was frustrated by the lack of outreach to Bristol Bay stakeholders before the decision was made.

“And I think that the lack of process that the governor and the commissioner have not gone through is really sad,” he said. “…I think all of us were put in a position of not being able to rally and ask why. It’s now really we’re asking how come.”

But Walker said he was ready for something different, and didn’t make the decision lightly, knowing it was a big change for the bay.

“I just wanted a little different balance, not necessarily of user groups but a regional balance a little bit for a change,” Walker said. “I certainly wouldn’t look at this as a trend in anyway, but I think that there’s a lot of angst in the Cook Inlet, Peninsula region… I looked at the individuals, both were obviously quite good. Fritz has been a good board member. And I look at Robert Ruffner, and…what I think he brings to the board, and I just felt I needed to have a little bit of a different, a little bit of a shift, and use Fritz in a different way.”

Although Johnson received a ticket for fishing three minutes after the fishing period closed this summer, Walker said that wasn’t a deciding factor in the decision not to re-appoint him. Instead, Walker said he’s hoping Johnson will help with a new advisory group he’s forming to review the board process.

“I know he’d much rather be on the board, but I need somebody from the board to be part of this advisory group,” Walker said. “…I want to look at some potential changes to the board process in some way, but I need to put together this advisory group to do that and so, like I said, I’ve asked Fritz to be part of that if he’s willing to.”

Walker said he met with Samuelson and Rep. Bryce Edgmon after the announcement was made.

Johnson’s replacement, Ruffner, is actually a second time nominee. Last year, the state Legislature voted him down after he was selected to replace former board chair Karl Johnstone, citing concerns that his appointment would change the balance. Johnstone was considered a sportfishing representative; Ruffner had a science background, and said he would put the resource first.

Walker later appointed Robert Mumford, a former Alaska wildlife trooper, to Johnstone’s seat after Ruffner wasn’t confirmed. Mumford served for most of the year, but announced in late January that he planned to resign in March.

Walker has nominated Anchorage’s Al Cain, another former trooper, to replace him. The governor rounded out his fish board nominees with Israel Payton, a Wasilla resident who has worked as a hunting and fishing guide. He’ll replace Tom Kluberton, who said in December that he didn’t plan to serve another term.

The appointments change the balance on the seven-member board, which makes policy and allocative decisions for the state’s fisheries. Typically, there are three representatives of the sport fishing industry, one subsistence representative and three from commercial fisheries. The most recent round of nominations, if confirmed, will change the balance.

Samuelson said it isn’t just commercial fishing representation he’s worried about.

“Subsistence is the most important fishery in our state, especially in rural Alaska, and who’s gonna carry the torch on that board for us,” he said. “Not only our commercial fishery but our subsistence fishery.”

All of the governor’s nominations are subject to confirmation by the Legislature, a process that’s been contentious in the past couple of years. Walker said he expects Ruffner to be confirmed this time around.

“I’ve received, I believe, assurances that it will go significantly differently. Otherwise I would not have put him back up as a nominee,” he said.

Specifically, Walker said individuals from the Kenai Peninsula told him they thought the vote would go differently this spring. But one Kenai Peninsula lawmaker, republican representative Mike Chenault, said it remains to be seen how the confirmation process will go.

“It is contentious,” Chenault told KDLG News. “I have never seen a board member just kinda sail through unscathed without somebody taking pot shots at ‘em, and you know, why some (people) even would want to be on this board, I have no idea.”

Chenault said the fish board appointees will likely face multiple confirmation hearings before the Legislature meets in a joint session to confirm (or not) the nominees. That hearing is likely to occur toward the end of the session.

In addition to the fish picks, the governor re-appointed Nathan Turner for the state Board of Game, and appointed Guy Trimmingham for a first term.

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