A bill the Alaska House passed 33-2 on Wednesday would loosen ethics rules for the state Board of Fisheries.
House Bill 15 would allow board members to join in discussions on fisheries in which they or their family members are involved, though they would still not be able to vote. Right now, the rules require them to recuse themselves completely.
The bill would not, however, allow board members to participate in issues for which they've been paid to lobby or consult.
Commercial fishermen have been trying to make such a change for more than a decade, saying current law forces knowledgeable board members out of important fisheries discussions. Joe Childers, executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska, said the current rules "hamstring" the board, which is so small that the recusal of one member makes a big difference.
"Current law conflicts board members out of discussions where they have the most expertise to offer," said Rep. Paul Seaton, R-Homer, who introduced the bill last year.
The Board of Fish meets four to six times a year in different parts of Alaska. The seven members of the board decide on seasons, bag limits, methods and means, and otherwise set policy for management of Alaska's fisheries. They are appointed by the governor to three-year terms for their expertise, which most of them have from participating in the fisheries they regulate.
The bill also would limit the definition of "immediate family" whose fishing might be a conflict for a board member to spouses and domestic partners, parents and children who are dependents or live with the board member.
Current rules require a member to disclose a possible conflict when cousins or other extended family fish. This change would bring the definition in line with the rules for state legislators.
The bill would require the state Department of Fish and Game to submit a report in 2011 on how the rule change affected the board.
Rep. Bill Stoltze, R-Chugiak, and Rep. Mark Neuman, R-Wasilla, voted against the bill. Neither of them was available for comment Wednesday.
Steve Cleary of the Alaska Public Interest Research Group has been campaigning for ethics reforms in the Legislature.
He said that a relaxation of the rules made sense for such a small board. The public should be easily able to track the board members' disclosed conflicts.
"I think people can filter that and see that it's a point of view that can and should be expressed," he said.
Cleary compared it to the Legislature. There, lawmakers must disclose their conflicts - but having done so, they're back in the mix to vote with the rest.
"This one seems to be a more reasoned approach," he said.
The bill has been passed to the Senate. It is scheduled to be referred to committee on Friday