Lawmakers consider larger fish board, other fisheries bills
Although the state budget and Alaskan's permanent fund are drawing much of the attention in Juneau this session, lawmakers are also considering a handful of fisheries-related bills.
Introduced in the House so far are a bill that could increase the value of state commercial fishing loans, an effort to better protect Bristol Bay from potential mining projects, and others that would make changes to the state Board of Fisheries. For the most part, fisheries-related bills in the House first go to the House Fisheries committee for consideration, which is chaired by Kodiak Republican Louise Stutes, and includes members from several coastal communities. As of Feb. 7, none had gone on to the full House for a vote.
If House Bill 88, introduced by Stutes, is passed, the state board of fisheries could have two more members in the future. On Feb. 7, the committee took a first look at that bill, with information from staff and public testimony.
Speakers supporting the change noted that it could lead to better regional representation, and could leave more members to discuss an issue when one was unable to participate in a decision because of participation in a fishery or other conflict.
Cordova's Clay Koplin said that as state fisheries get more complicated, a larger board could be helpful.
"In general, I'm in favor of broader representation," Koplin said. "... The broader perspective and more talent we can get on the board, the better."
The change could come at a cost to the board's operations, however. Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight said it could cost more than $80,000 to add two members, as a result of paying for more travel and expenses, and the likely lengthening of the meetings.
Ninilchik fisherman John McCombs said in testimony that cost was a major concern.
"In a time of government cuts, this seems incongruous, at best," McCombs said.
That bill did not move out of committee. Stutes said she was holding it for more public testimony. On Feb. 9, the committee is expected to discuss the other change to the board of fish, a bill that address conflicts of interest and ethics issues for board members.
The committee has already heard House Bill 56, which could increase the limits on commercial fishing loans made by the state's Department of Commerce, Community and Economic Development, but that has yet to move out of committee.
As proposed by Rep. Dan Ortiz, the department would be able to make loans of up to $400,000, rather than $300,000, which is the current limit. The fiscal note for the bill states that there would be no additional cost to the department to implement the change.
The loan program is generally considered to support small boat fishermen, and in a letter of support, Alaska Fisheries Development Foundation Executive Director Julie Decker wrote that she believed it would continue to do so with the proposed change.
"Capital costs to enter and remain in the commercial fishing industry have grown tremendously over the last 20 years," Decker wrote. "Increasing the maximum limit for loans from a single borrower ... will improve the program by more adequately pairing loan limits to actual costs for new or current fishermen."
That was referred to the House Fisheries committee, where it was taken up on Feb. 2, but had not moved out of committee as of Feb. 7. Also still in committee as of Feb. 7 was the bill that would make the process to permit a mine in Bristol Bay more difficult, which has been described as an effort to better protect the region from the potential negative impacts a large-scale mine would have here. That was heard in late January, but the committee ran out of time for testimony and as of Feb. 7 had not yet scheduled another hearing.
Molly Dischner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.