Fishing groups split over Murkowski permitting plan

United Fishermen head says his letter of support for governor represents views of most on board

Posted: Sunday, February 09, 2003

ANCHORAGE - Some members of the United Fishermen of Alaska are objecting to letter from the group's president that Gov. Frank Murkowski displayed as an endorsement of his plan to take permit power from the state's Habitat Division.

The UFA leadership sent the letter before checking with all the member organizations.

"When the governor was giving his speech and showing the letter, our local group, the North Pacific Fisheries Association here in Homer, was at the same time voting on whether we supported or did not support the governor's proposal," said Dan Winn, a board member.

Winn's association is one of about 30 member groups of UFA. Winn, whose group later voted to oppose Murkowski's plan, said he was shocked when the governor announced Monday that he had a "statement from the United Fishermen of Alaska" supporting his habitat plan.

The statement was a letter from UFA President Bob Thorstenson Jr., who on Thursday said it reflected the feeling of most of the commercial fishing association's board.

The letter defended Murkowski against criticism of his plan to eliminate the permit power of the state Department of Fish and Game's Habitat Division and move it to the Department of Natural Resources. The past five commissioners of Fish and Game signed a letter saying that would weaken the state's habitat protection and endanger Alaska's fisheries.

Thorstenson conceded that UFA board members, who represent member organizations, were being polled about Murkowski's plan when he wrote the letter. But he said most of the board had weighed in by then and the overriding sentiment supported the governor.

"Definitely I was a half-step ahead of the board," Thorstenson said. "But the board is right behind me."

The letter said that "the United Fishermen of Alaska intends to stand beside Gov. Murkowski as he attempts to provide a reasonable balance" between development and environmental protection. It said the permit power shift would streamline government and not water down environmental rules.

Thorstenson said it was important that the letter not wait, because of his own travel schedule and because the governor needed support.

The letter does have some strong backing among UFA member organizations.

"I did approve of the concept of the letter, and we do support it," said Al Burch of Kodiak, executive director of the Alaska Draggers Association. The Murkowski administration "is not flushing habitat, not flushing fishing interests. It sounds to me that we will still have the protections that we have."

Jerry McCune, of UFA's executive committee, said that the president's letter represents the current direction of the group's board. But McCune, who represents Cordova District Fishermen United, said the paramount feeling among fishing groups, including his own, is to wait to see specifics of Murkowski's plan and then decide how to proceed.

The Juneau-based Alaska Trollers Association is very concerned about the implications of Murkowski's plan and is working with other groups on an alternative, said Dale Kelley, ATA's executive director.

The Kodiak Regional Aquaculture Association is upset that it didn't have a chance to weigh in on Thorstenson's letter and is considering leaving UFA, said KRAA board member Oliver Holm. The aquaculture association has not voted yet on whether to support Murkowski's plan. Holm said it would be a big mistake to take permit power from the Habitat Division.

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