Fish Board nominee draws critics

Brent Johnson of Clam Gulch has commercial fishing background

Posted: Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Gov. Sarah Palin's nominee for the state Board of Fisheries has run into opposition from sport fishing groups and critics who say his approval would leave the body without a voice from north of Big Lake.

Palin has nominated Brent Johnson of Clam Gulch, a setnet fisherman who critics say will skew the balance of the board toward commercial fishermen in allocating a precious Alaska resource, fish.

John Blair of Sitka, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Guides Organization, testified last week before the House Special Committee on Fisheries and again Monday before the Senate Resources Committee. He said Johnson's appointment raises two important concerns: It would leave Interior Alaska without representation, and it does not correct the current lack of Alaska Native representation on the board.

"We think it's very important that the board reflect the diverse user groups, ethnic groups and locations throughout the state," Blair said. "This nomination represents a missed opportunity for Interior and Native representation."

Johnson is a lifelong Alaskan with a background any outdoorsman could envy. He was born in Seldovia and his family homesteaded in Clam Gulch, where he grew up catching trout and shooting grouse.

He followed in his father's footsteps by commercially fishing with setnets stretched perpendicular from the beach to intercept salmon as they swim near shore on their way to freshwater streams.

He has volunteered and worked in a variety of public service positions, including aquaculture and the Kenai Peninsula Borough Planning Commission. He said he's been attending Fish Board meetings since 1979.

"I am perfectly willing to work with sport fishermen," he said.

He had plenty of support in public testimony. Current board members Mel Morris of Kodiak and John Jensen of Petersburg, the board chairman, said Johnson would be a knowledgeable, able and fair board member. Morris downplayed regional differences and the idea that board members represented particular interests.

"I don't consider myself to have any constituents in the state," he said.

But a number of Johnson's Kenai Peninsula neighbors who make a living off anglers said they wanted someone else on the board.

Andy Szczesny of Soldotna, a Kenai River fishing guide, said he had worked with Johnson on subsistence committees but did not back him for the group deciding how fish will be divided among Alaska's interest groups.

"I don't think he can be objective in our $1.4 billion sport fishing industry," he said.

Mike Kramer of Fairbanks said he had nothing against Johnson and that he could easily back him if he were replacing one of the board members with a commercial fishing background. However, Kramer said he could not support Johnson taking the seat previously held by Bonnie Williams of Fairbanks, he said.

Ever since Walter Hickel was governor, Kramer said, governors had an unwritten rule of appointing three commercial fishermen, three sport fishermen and one person from Fairbanks to the board. He warned of an imbalance if lawmakers approved Johnson.

"You're ensuring a board that is dominated by commercial fishing interests," he said.

The appointment also would mean no one north of Big Lake, a Matanuska-Susitna Borough community north of Wasilla, would be on the board, Kramer said.

"That's more than half the state of Alaska," he said. The absence would be especially critical because the board soon will be considering decisions affecting commercial and subsistence fishermen on the Yukon and Kuskokwim watersheds.

State senators asked for rosters of previous Fish Boards. They will vote on Palin appointees Thursday in a joint session with the House.

"You're kind of between a hard place and a rock, with the fish in the middle," Sen. Charlie Huggins, R-Wasilla, told Johnson.

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