The Juneau-Douglas Fish and Game advisory committee, held up as a model for the rest of the state, fell apart this week. Nine of its 15 members quit, saying the committee overrepresents charter fishing operators.
"It's really unfortunate, because this has been a very solid committee and has had an excellent reputation in recent years," said Jim Marcotte, executive director of the Board of Fisheries and Board of Game.
The 82 committees across the state are intended as the grassroots voices to help the state boards of Fisheries and Game decide policy. Community members are elected by those who attend and serve three-year terms. They meet several times a year.
Several of those who quit had been on the committee for decades, such as trapper and vice chairman Nick Yurko, a 30-plus-year veteran. Yurko, a sportsman, five commercial fishermen, a conservationist and an alternate who commercially fishes quit. They said charter fishing operators have been elected into two seats reserved for sport or personal-use fishermen and hunters.
With too many charter operators and not enough sportsmen, the committee no longer represented Juneau's population, they said.
"A lot of us feel like you want to protect the Alaskan resident sport fisherman who goes out and gets a little bit in their freezer, but doesn't take more than they need," said Kathy Hansen, executive director of the Southeast Alaska Fishermen's Alliance and the chairwoman who quit.
They proposed that the joint Board of Fish and Game formally designate the seats, an action the committee can't take by itself.
Yurko said balancing these committees is an old problem, because anyone who comes to the meetings can vote.
"The way it used to go, the gillnetters wanted to tie up all the seats. Then the following years the trollers would come through, and the following year it would be the sportsmen," Yurko said. "We just got tired of this, so we felt we would divide up the board to all user groups."
The committee's solution was to designate seats for different users of fish and game: four commercial fishing reps, a processor, five sportsmen, a trapper, a conservationist, a charter operator, and a "consumptive/nonconsumptive" seat for subsistence users and nonconsumers, such as wildlife photographers.
Legally, anyone with an active hunting or fishing license can be elected to any seat. The balance was maintained with the honor system.
A disputed seat is that of Chris Conder, who runs Rum Runner Charters in Juneau and holds the "consumptive/nonconsumptive" seat.
He said he's an appropriate choice because half his business is from whale watching and sightseeing tours.
He also said it's "not a bad idea" for charter operators to sit on sport seats, because they depend on the sportsmen for their business. He said Alaska residents are a substantial portion of the charters.
"Who is going to look out after sport-fishing interests better than a charter guy?" he said.
He said several people were quitting just before their terms ended with the year, and the committee wasn't scheduled to discuss anything contentious in the next few months.
"I was surprised and disappointed when this came down," he said. "I think we had some great people on this board."
Committee discussions have been strained because of fights over halibut, even though that's a federally managed fishery the committee doesn't deal with. Tensions between local commercial and charter industries ramped up this year after Southeast charter operators sued the federal government to keep their clients' daily bag limit at two halibut. One of the charter captains elected last week, Mike Bethers, was involved in the lawsuit.
About 40 charter businesses operate in the Juneau area, according to Conder. Hansen said around 450 to 500 people commercially fish here.
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