Governor walks back administrative order


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In February, Governor Bill Walker decided to transfer most of the duties of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, which is a fiscally self-sustaining organization, over to the Department of Fish and Game. He did this through Administrative Order 279.

He characterized it as a cost-saving measure, although he had no study to show what those cost savings would be. Here’s what his order said:

The administrative and research functions of the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (Commission) are transferred to the Department of Fish and Game (Department) under authority of the Commissioner of Fish and Game. This transfer is necessary for efficient administration and will provide for appropriate and effective performance of these functions.

What ensued was an immediate lawsuit led by fishermen Robert Thorstenson and Jerry McCune, and possibly another followup lawsuit, and a whole lot of pushback from the commercial fishing community.

AO 279 caused enough turmoil that it never got implemented. The political cost and potential ongoing bitter litigation with fishermen was just too high for Walker.

Today he simply walked back the administrative order by placing a moratorium on it. The order will likely just go onto the burn pile.

Although a judge ruled that the governor was within his rights to restructure functions in government, Walker has now acknowledged that he did not consult with key stakeholders.

How does the fishing community describe the debacle?

They say the governor ambushed them. He had lots of opportunities to tell them what he was up to, because United Fishermen of Alaska has any number of representatives in Juneau during the legislative session. He had been meeting with commercial fishermen representatives, even that very week. He just chose to not tell them what he was about to do.

They felt blindsided by the governor’s sudden transfer of duties from the more independent Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission to the very political Department of Fish and Game.

The functions that were to be moved included:

  • Licensing and permitting
  • Information technology
  • Accounting
  • Payroll
  • Procurement
  • Budget

That’s most everything. In one fell swoop, Gov. Walker was eviscerating the commission’s authority to conserve and maintain the health of Alaska’s commercial fisheries by managing the limits on the number of participating fishers through permits, vessel licences and due process hearings and appeals.

To say the fishing community was taken by surprise is a vast understatement. It went ballistic.


Gov. Walker introducing Sam Cotten as his commissioner of Fish and Game.
Gov. Walker introducing Sam Cotten as his commissioner of Fish and Game.

Who originally got to the governor and convinced him to move duties to under the supervision of Fish and Game Commissioner Sam Cotten?

Very likely Cotten himself, but possibly also in alliance with Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott, whom Gov. Walker has tasked with running most of state government so Walker can focus on the gasline he wants to build. Mallott has his own set of advisers.

United Fishermen of Alaska has opposed the order because that department manages for all types of fisheries — sport, personal use, subsistence and commercial — and there could be a conflict of interest.

Besides, according to UFA, the commission is profitable enough that it pays for itself, and it’s funded entirely by commercial fishermen, all of whom probably prefer to leave things as they are.

Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott
Lt. Gov. Byron Mallott

Eviscerating the duties of the commercial fishing commission came at the same time Gov. Walker was allowing the federal government to take control of more land in Alaska, and also allowing tribes to move their lands under federal control.

Knowing his allegiances to greater federal control of Alaska lands and federal fish and game management, it appears that Byron Mallott’s fingerprints are all over this embarassment. An embarrassment the governor now has to own.