The Alaska Board of Fisheries, which planned to hold its Southeast and Yakutat shellfish and finfish meeting Jan. 4-15 in Ketchikan, has rescheduled the meeting to be held March 10-22 in Anchorage.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game and the Board of Fisheries announced on Jan.1 that the Ketchikan meeting at the Ted Ferry Civic Center was being postponed to “a future date and location to be determined”  out of an abundance of caution due to the sharp rise of COVID-19 cases, in addition to weather- and pandemic-related transportation difficulties.

The meeting that had been scheduled for Jan 4-15 already had been postponed for one year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

The move to Anchorage from Ketchikan was explained in an update released Tuesday by the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as “part of a balancing act between allowing the current COVID-19 surge to peak, limited budget, logistics, fishery timing, other board meetings, and COVID-19 testing and hospital capacity.”

The update noted that “to support strong public participation by impacted Southeast Alaska residents, the board is allowing remote public testimony for this meeting at select ADF&G Southeast offices.”

The Board of Fisheries is a group of seven people appointed by Alaska’s governor and approved by the Legislature. The board receives written proposals, comments and oral and written testimony from members of the public, local Fish and Game advisory committees as well as from the Department of Fish and Game.

The board deliberates on regulations that respond to people’s concerns while also considering the need for long-term conservation and sustainable use of resources, according to board information. The board’s meetings are open to the public and are intended to provide opportunity for the public to comment.

There are more than 80 advisory committees located across the state, each with up to 15 locally elected members. Each committee considers and discusses local concerns about fishing regulations, and can submit proposed regulation changes and make recommendations to the Board of Fisheries.

ADF&G biologists also share their fisheries surveys and biological and habitat studies with both the advisory committees and the Board of Fisheries, assisting committee members in developing proposals for board consideration. ADF&G staff also submit proposals to the board.

Individuals also are invited to submit proposals to the Board of Fisheries to change fishing regulations.

There are 157 proposals submitted by the public, fishing organizations, local fish and game advisory committees, and Fish and Game planned to be considered during the March meetings.

Alaska Board of Fisheries Executive Director Glenn Haight in a phone call Wednesday echoed the reasoning for the change of venue that was stated in the announcement released on Tuesday.

The location change is “really about COVID — one is getting past the surge,” he said, “but also being able to set up in a place that has better hospital capacity in the event there’s an outbreak” seemed critical when planning, as well.

He noted that bringing about 200 people into Ketchikan “from all over the state” seemed to be an untenable risk, even in March when there is no guarantee the viral surges will have subsided.

Haight also said that “it’s really unfortunate not to have it in Southeast, so we’ve gone the extra step — it’s not something the board does, at all — but, we’re going to allow for remote public testimony at Fish and Game regional offices.”

He explained that there will be offices in towns designated to be locations where people can give live testimony, as well as to ask questions of Board of Fisheries members during the meetings. ADF&G staff will be trained to act as proctors for each person’s testimony, and access will be planned to ensure safe social distancing.

Haight pointed out that the ability to offer testimony at local offices in various communities with the move to Anchorage will save travel costs for people who would have had to travel to Ketchikan.

Russell Thomas, who is a Ketchikan-based owner of several fishing-reliant businesses as well as an officer with the SouthEast Alaska Guides Organization, said the move of the meetings to Anchorage is not good news.

“We understand the reasons for wanting to keep everybody safe, but it’s certainly disappointing that the meetings aren’t going to be held here,” he said in a telephone conversation Wednesday.

He explained why holding the upcoming meetings in Ketchikan is so important.

“The process itself is very participation-centered,” he said, “not just the testimony, but a significant amount of the work that’s done there is in the hallways, and in committee meetings. And where you have conflicting proposals, ... different gear groups then have the opportunity to get with one another to see if they can work out their differences, to see if there’s a compromise position that would allow them to work to achieve their goals.”

He said that holding the meetings in a location as remote as Anchorage is from Southeast Alaska communities would make participation for many people “difficult if not impossible.”

Increasing the downsides of the location change, Thomas said, was that these particular meetings to decide proposed regulation changes for Southeast Alaska only are held every three years, and were already delayed by one year.

“Decisions that are made usually have long-lasting consequences, and you don’t get another opportunity to fix something for another three years,” he explained, adding, that it “sort of puts a punctuation mark on why the process is so important.”

Thomas did add that “I’m really happy to see they’re allowing remote participation, because I think that testimony and participation is an essential part of the process.”

That participation from residents of the regions targeted for discussion is critical, he said, and holding the meetings in a location where those residents can easily attend and speak boosts that participation.

“(Relocating the meetings outside the region) can’t help but add a negative impact on the number of people that will be able to participate,” he said.

Southeast Alaska Seiners Association Executive Director Sue Doherty also commented on the venue shift to Anchorage by the Board of Fisheries in a phone call Wednesday.

She said the result of the move would be that residents of Southeast Alaska would be disenfranchised.

“Not only the timing, but it being in Anchorage — I mean, how much farther away could you get from Southeast?” she said.

She said she has sent letters outlining the costs of the move to the decision makers in which she explained that after the one-year, then a two-month postponement, “it wasn’t going to be perfect, no matter what. Either the timing wasn’t going to be perfect, or the location wasn’t going to be good, but it seems like they chose two bad things.”

She said she isn’t sure whether there’s a chance that the decision will be reconsidered, especially as she is aware that the board is facing severe budget constraints. She added, however, that she could see a legislative appropriation as potentially solving that issue.

Doherty also pointed to criteria outlined in the Board of Fisheries meetings of 2018 concerning how locations for meetings are to be chosen. Among the 14 criteria identified are how accessible the location is by air travel and how robust internet service is at a location under consideration, for example.

A criteria listed as part of the process of choosing a location that Doherty pointed to as critical to the issue of the upcoming Southeast Alaska meetings being moved to Anchorage is “relationship of community to Board of Fisheries topics of discussion.”

The upcoming topics to be discussed in the March meetings have no relationship to the Anchorage area, she pointed out.

Other criteria that the move will violate, Doherty said, include the high cost of Southeast ADF&G managers to travel to and stay in Anchorage, the high time needed for travel to Anchorage, and the lack of economic and cultural importance to the discussion topics in the Anchorage area.

“It doesn’t appear that they’re even following their own criteria,” she said.

She also said that the unusually late start of the meetings causes more problems for those who would like to participate in person, but who also need to fish when their particular gear type opens so close to the meeting times. For some, they may risk missing a very lucrative fishery opening with the long travel time required to attend meetings in Anchorage and then to return to their homes in Southeast.

She, like Thomas, pointed out that the ability to attend in-person offers many opportunities to share ideas, work out issues and learn through informal conversations during the event.

The cost of traveling to Anchorage may be tough for groups to handle, Doherty said, but it likely would be prohibitive for many individuals.

She also pointed out that the loss to the economy of Ketchikan with all of the visitors that will not stay in town will be a huge hit for the town.

City of Ketchikan Mayor Dave Kiffer also offered his viewpoint on the decision to move the meetings to Anchorage via a phone call Tuesday.

He first stated that he is not happy about the change in plans.

The first problem for the City of Ketchikan is the loss of rent for the Ted Ferry Civic Center, which is owned and managed by the city. He noted, as did Doherty, the loss of 200 or so visitors that were expected to stay in town to attend the meetings while paying for hotels, restaurant meals and purchases at local stores, and whom would be lost with the move.

“It’s a couple-hundred-thousand dollar hit to the community,” he said.

Although Kiffer said he understood the organizers’ concerns about traveling during the pandemic, “there’s no reason they couldn’t have postponed it and still had it here.”

He added that, “by moving it to Anchorage, you’re really disenfranchising all the people in Southeast who were looking forward to be able to testify at this event.”

Kiffer also said that the move “basically takes away the ability of people in this region to weigh in on policy changes that will affect them,” and that it “defeats the purpose of the board” which normally holds meetings in areas specifically to garner input from regional residents.

He explained that in his experience, that telephonic testimony is just not the same. When people are speaking telephonically at state government meetings, for instance, he said meeting attendees commonly get up to talk with other people, get food or use the restroom.

“There may as well be no committee in the room when people testify,” he said.

He concluded, “it’s just not the same, and you can’t argue that it is.”

The meetings are scheduled to be held from March 10 through 22 at the Egan Civic and Convention Center in Anchorage. To accommodate the fast-approaching herring season, the board will handle herring proposals first.

The deadline for public comments has been extended to Feb. 23.

To find specific information on how to submit comments and testimony as well as the scheduled topics at the meetings, visit www.adfg.alaska.gov online, and select the tab “news and events,” then select “Board of Fisheries and Game: Actions and Activities.”