Homer Alaska - Seawatch

Story last updated at 9:31 PM on Wednesday, March 9, 2011

UCIDA files complaint against fish board member

The drastic cuts made to the commercial salmon fishery in Upper Cook Inlet at the Board of Fisheries meetings that ended last week are overshadowed by an ethics complaint that, if it gets any traction, could get recent decisions thrown out. The upper inlet would then be covered by the 2008 management plan.

At the beginning of the meetings, the board was handed a letter of complaint by the United Cook Inlet Drift Association about board member Tom Kluberton, objecting to his participation in voting on proposals 126,143 and 159. Proposal 126 was adopted, with some modification, as the fisheries management plan for the drift fleet and was drafted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association, the Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor's Blue Ribbon Sportsmen's Committee and the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.

The letter from UCIDA read, in part, "Board member Tom Kluberton served as the chair of the Mayor's Blue Ribbon Sportsmen's Committee and was an assembly member of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough when these proposals were developed. Board member Kluberton's participation in the development of these proposals presents a clear conflict of interest and raises concerns over the board's appearance of fairness."

Attached were letters written by Kluberton as chair of the Blue Ribbon Committee to the Joint Legislative Cook Inlet Salmon Task Force, to John Hilsinger, former director of the Commercial Fisheries Division of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, and Matanuska-Susitna Borough Mayor Curt Menard outlining how a change in demographics and user groups for Cook Inlet salmon resources points to a need to change management policies to favor sport fishermen and tourism.

One letter read, in part, "To maintain the current system of management and allocation is to ignore the significant decline in economic contribution of the commercial fishery, the increase in economic potential of the recreational fisheries and a wholesale shift in the social benefits derived from the fisheries. To continue on the current path is to deny these changes have occurred and demonstrates a complete lack of social and economic awareness."

Before the board began deliberations, board chair Vince Webster asked the Alaska Department of Law representative in attendance for an opinion. The department's representative asked Kluberton to explain his involvement in the Blue-Ribbon Committee, which seemed to be the basis of the complaint.

Kluberton explained that his tenure on the committee was related to his term on the assembly, which ended in October 2009, and stated that he had no role whatsoever in preparing the proposals currently before the Board of Fisheries, although he did work on proposals for the 2008 Cook Inlet cycle.

With regard to the letters, Kluberton said that his signature was on them by virtue of his title of board chair and meant only that the committee had voted in favor of the letters.

While the Department of Law and his fellow board members were satisfied with his answers, UCIDA Executive Director Roland Maw was not. Maw maintains that, according to the state ethics act, the board chair had a duty to fully investigate the potential conflict.

"There are really two issues here, one dealing with Kluberton himself and what he did and didn't do, and then the second issue is the chairman, did he make adequate investigations on the conflict of interest?

"They gave him five minutes to explain himself away, and never asked him a single question."

Maw contends that Webster had an obligation to dig deeper.

"(The board chair) is charged under state statute to conduct an adequate investigation to make a determination as to the nature and extent of conflict."

While it is not a part of the UCIDA complaint, Kluberton also owns a lodge near Talkeetna that advertises fishing as one of the activities available. It is not clear if he declared that to fellow board members before voting on proposals that restrict the commercial fleet in order to provide more fish to the Matanuska-Susitna region.

UCIDA is exploring its legal options with regard to the complaint.

The changes to the commercial fishery include:

• Removing the drift fleet from Area 1, south of Kalgin Island, and restricting them to an expanded corridor for one opening between July 9 and July 16;

• Restricting the drift fleet to the expanded corridor, instead of Area 1 and the corridor, for one opening between July 9 and July 16 on runs of less than 2.3 million sockeye to the Kenai River;

• Restricting the drift fleet to either the expanded corridor or Area 1, not both as in the current plan, for one opening per week on runs between 2.3 and 4.6 million sockeye to the Kenai River;

• Adding a purpose statement directing the department to "manage the commercial drift gillnet fishers to minimize the harvest of Northern District and Kenai River coho salmon," with no mention of avoiding over-escapement of Kenai or Kasilof River sockeye;

• Creating a fixed window for the setnet fishery on Tuesdays, instead of a floating window early in the week that allowed managers to either use the setnetters to harvest fish if over-escapement was a concern, or keep them on the beach when a pulse of fish was moving through if they were worried about meeting escapement goals;

• Defining that window as one calendar day, midnight to midnight, making it more likely to actually be a 30-hour window because managers are unlikely to open a period at midnight due to safety concerns;

• Defining all fishing periods as one calendar day, midnight to midnight, instead of from when fishing opens until when fishing closes, which affects the "1 percent rule." That rule says that if fewer than 1 percent of the season total of sockeye are caught in two consecutive fishing periods after August 1, the east side fishery closes, and the drift fleet is moved to Areas 3 and 4. This could result in the fishery closing as early as August 3.

UCIDA President Dave Martin estimates the changes will cost the fishery 30 to 40 percent of their catch.

The board voted to put no restrictions on any sport fisheries or personal use fisheries. The bag limit for certain west-side coho sport fisheries was increased from 2 to 3 fish per day.

Cristy Fry has commercial fished out of Homer and King Cove since 1978. She can be reached at realist468@gmail.com.