Hundreds of Alaskans gave legislators an earful at recent hearings on controversial appointees to the Board of Fisheries, which oversees management of the state’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal-use fisheries.
Comments are still being accepted and had topped 500 after two virtual hearings, one on Aug. 28 convened by Sen. Peter Micciche (R-Soldotna) and another held jointly by the House Fisheries and Resources committees on Sept. 3, where more than 100 people called in to testify.
The overwhelming majority of Alaskans expressed polite outrage at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s selection of Abe Williams, 49, of Anchorage, a commercial fisherman who is also director of regional affairs for the Pebble Mine's parent company. He would be the second member to be affiliated with Pebble should he be approved by the full Legislature. During the five-hour Sept. 3 hearing, only four spoke in favor of Williams’ appointment.
Nearly all comments also sharply criticized the makeup of the seven-member board, which would be dominated by sport-fish seats. Only one member, John Jensen of Petersburg, represents a coastal fishing region.
Alaskans also finally got a chance to hear from unknown appointee McKenzie Mitchell of Fairbanks, a self-proclaimed hunting and sport-fish guide, small-plane enthusiast and an adjunct professor in “economics and recreation management” at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
As credentials for serving on the fish board, Mitchell offered her graduate thesis, titled “Determinants of Anglers Willingness to Pay to Support the Recreational (Halibut) Quota Entity Program.” (Halibut is not a state-managed fishery; it falls under the jurisdiction of the International Pacific Halibut Commission.)
Rep. Geran Tarr (D-Anchorage) revealed that Mitchell had never attended a Board of Fisheries meeting until after she was appointed by the governor, and directly questioned her lack of qualifications and experience to serve on such a complex board.
"Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for that question," Mitchell said. "I can understand that I have not really been involved in this process, you know, prior to the appointment and last winter when I, you know, the, you know, I became aware that, you know, some positions were going to be coming open and, you know, and then I decided to put my name in for a seat. And, and the reason I guess I wasn't involved before is I, I just graduated school in May of 2019.
“And so I, you know, my life kind of went through a big transition over the last year and a half as I completed school and completed my pilot ratings that I've been working at, and, you know, during those years I was waiting tables five and six nights a week while I was in school, but, you know, it's just and now all of a sudden I've graduated and I have a more stable employment. And, um, you know, I have the credentials to support a different lifestyle as opposed to, you know, trying to be a student and pay for school and whatnot, and all of a sudden I, my life has changed in the last year and a half and has given me the opportunities to be, become involved, and that's, I guess, what I'm trying to do. So, thank you.”
A stream of commenters called Mitchell “woefully lacking in experience,” and “a glaring example of why there is no trust in the system,” and called her appointment “an insult to the process” and “criminal.”
Four testified in support, each saying they believed Mitchell would provide “fresh perspectives.”
Although they have not been confirmed by the Alaska Legislature, Mitchell and Williams will be voting members on upcoming Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska fish issues if the Board of Fisheries convenes its meeting cycle starting in October.
According to Rep. Louise Stutes (R-Kodiak), the governor could call a special session and include confirmations on the agenda, but that must be done by Dec. 15. If no special session is called, “the current appointments would be interpreted as a no vote by the Alaska Legislature, and they are not eligible for reappointment during the next session,” Stutes said.
It all could become a moot point.
The Board of Fisheries will hold a listen-only teleconference on Sept. 16, 2:30-4:30 p.m., to consider its 2020-21 meeting schedule in the face of constraints posed by the covid-19 pandemic. A live audio stream of the teleconference will be available at www.boardoffisheries.adfg.alaska.gov.
The board accepted public comments on the topic from July 22 through Aug. 31, and the majority voiced support for postponing the meetings as opposed to holding them online.
Additional written comments may be sent through Sept. 11 to [email protected] or mailed to Boards Support Section, P.O. Box 115526, Juneau, AK 99811-5526.