The Alaska Board of Fisheries meeting that was planned for this month in Ketchikan will be held in Anchorage instead in March.
Local Ketchikan leaders say the decision is a loss for the community’s winter economy and it’s leaving some feeling cut out of the decision-making process.
The seven-person board decides on regulations for state-managed commercial, sport and subsistence fisheries. It was scheduled to tackle over 150 proposals for Southeast fisheries starting Jan. 4 at the Ted Ferry Civic Center in Ketchikan after a year of pandemic-related postponements.
But this month it was postponed again because of the rising COVID-19 case counts in Southeast. Now that meeting is planned to start March 10 at the Egan Center in Anchorage.
“A lot of things at play and I guess I would call it almost retreating at this point but we’re looking at conducting the rest of our meeting schedule in Anchorage,” said Glenn Haight, the board’s executive director on Tuesday.
“You know first thing is we want to try and get past this surge, no guarantees we can do that but come March we think it’s a little safer than earlier,” Haight said. “It gives us at least about a month and a half to get past it.”
Haight said Anchorage’s larger hospital capacity played a role in the decision as the state sees COVID case numbers set new record highs this month. He said meetings for other parts of the state might be affected if the board postponed this Southeast meeting further.
“All indications that I’ve got from the board is they really feel the need to get this meeting cycle done this year so that they can move onto the next one next year,” Haight said. “And any loading up that you do, postponing you do is going to require likely enough additional budget, and that has its own set of challenges.”
Because of the move, Southeast residents who can’t travel to Anchorage will have a chance to testify remotely from some Department of Fish and Game offices during the meeting. The board will consider changes to herring fisheries first because herring seasons start in March. Salmon and other finfish proposals will be next, followed by shellfish and groundfish.
Leaders with Ketchikan’s tribal and local governments said they’re disappointed by the decision.
Gloria Burns, president of Ketchikan Indian Community’s Tribal Council, said KIC spent a great deal of time and energy preparing for in-person testimony by its members, with much of it centering around the traditional harvest of herring eggs. Now, she said the meeting will take place during the heart of the herring egg harvest season.
“It almost feels as though, from my perspective, as though it’s a purposeful intent to go ahead and keep the testimony that could have been provided from being provided in-person,” Burns said.
The Southeast meeting includes proposals from both subsistence and commercial harvesters to change the state’s management of the commercial sac roe herring fishery in Sitka Sound.
Ketchikan city mayor Dave Kiffer said the move disenfranchises people from Southeast. He said phone or video testimony is not as effective and he’d rather the meeting be rescheduled for a later date in Ketchikan.
He called the decision a double whammy for his community.
“First of all the financial impact of being able to have between 100-200 people coming to town, staying in hotels, eating at restaurants, buying things, the simple fact that we will lose at least $20,000 on renting our civic center, you’re looking easily at a $100,000-200,000 hit to our community that we were kind of counting on given all the other economic issues that are swirling around us,” Kiffer said.
Other organizations like the Juneau-based hunting and fishing group Territorial Sportsmen and the commercial fishing organization Alaska Trollers Association last year asked for a delay until 2023 because of health concerns and COVID-19 spread.
Commercial salmon troller Matt Donohoe of Sitka said he’d prefer the meeting be held in Southeast Alaska, but he was concerned with holding an in-person meeting in Ketchikan. The biggest problem he sees is the new dates overlap with the end of Southeast’s winter troll season.
“It leaves trollers with a really no-win choice of staying in town or going to Anchorage for the Board of Fish, or getting that last trip in between the tenth and the fifteenth of March which last year in 2021 was the most lucrative trip of the winter troll season,” Donohoe said. He’s hopeful the board will deal with salmon proposals at the end of the meeting to allow troll fishermen to finish their season and attend the meeting.
Other commercial fisheries for herring eggs, crab, halibut and black cod are also underway just before or after the new meeting date. The board also had a meeting scheduled in March on statewide shellfish proposals. Now that could be pushed back to later that month or into April.
The comment deadline for the Southeast meeting has been extended, it’s now Feb. 23 There’s a March 3 deadline to sign up for remote testimony.