Fisheries managers should reverse censorship of public comments
The North Pacific Fisheries Management Board process is difficult to follow. It’s a world of acronyms, statistics and legal jargon; but the decisions made there affect the lives of everyone in Alaska and directly affect the allocations of federally managed species – including king salmon and halibut – to Indigenous stakeholders , sports and commercial. Meetings take place over several weeks and can last more than 10 hours per day. It takes a long time to participate which the average Alaskan doesn’t have. Recently, the Council adopted a policy that makes it more difficult for Alaskans to effectively defend their communities, businesses and food sources.
At the April meeting, a policy to tighten restrictions on written public comments was quickly proposed and adopted. This meeting sparked a wave of testimony on two points: the bycatch of halibut and king salmon by the trawling sector. The overwhelming majority of evidence was in favor of reducing these bycatch and managing it based on abundance. People expressed their views with passion. A few included profanity, but these were eclipsed by the number who respectfully expressed concerns about the future of our ocean ecosystems, fisheries, communities, cultures and livelihoods.
Late on the last day of the meeting, Council adopted a policy that significantly tightened the rules on written testimony and gave Council staff broad authority to censor and filter comments. Part of the rationale for the new policy was that “members of the public linked the comments portal … and posted it on social media platforms (Facebook, Reddit), which generated many comments from people unfamiliar with the Council process ”and“ Many comments were made before any document was uploaded, and many comments were unrelated to the eAgenda element under which they were posted. ” It can be frustrating for the Board when stakeholders are not as familiar with their process and culture as paid lawyers whose lobbying contracts make up for their intimate knowledge of the complex rules and relationships within the system. However, this is not a valid justification for censoring the public, nor is it inappropriate to share information on how to participate with a large Alaskan audience for whom the process may be new or daunting.
The new policy shortens the time for submitting comments, only publishes comments after the period ends (preventing collaboration and information sharing), allows staff to sort comments into a “point of order” of the appropriate day ”(rather than the point chosen by the commentators), allows the removal of comments that are“ off topic ”(who will determine this?) or include“ unsubstantiated accusations ”(opinions), and implements a system that automatically filters comments with profanity.
While some user groups effectively engage with the Council, the voices of tens of thousands of individual Alaska stakeholders, whose lives are affected by many Council decisions, including bycatch issues, are often absent. When they participated in April, their comments were ignored as unfounded or uninformed, and silenced by this policy. The more opaque, complex and convoluted management systems become, the more those with a lot of time and money have elitist access to the process. One group is disproportionately benefiting from this policy change: the trawlers. And it’s hard to take a coincidence that this change immediately follows dominant testimony calling for reductions in king salmon and halibut trawl bycatch.
The policy infringes on freedom of expression through sweeping and hasty rule-making, and is a straightforward approach that erodes public trust and understanding in this process – which seems to fail everyone except the trawlers. The board should reverse this policy and consider why people were so passionate about expressing their views, what they were trying to communicate, and how they could better engage and meet the needs of various groups.
Mary peltola has been working for the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission as Executive Director since 2017. KRITFC serves 33 tribes on the Kuskokwim River. Mary is Yup’ik Eskimo and was raised in Kwethluk, Tuntutuliak, Platinum, and Bethel.
Scott Van Valin owns and operates El Capitan Lodge and Island Air Express, both based on Prince of Wales Island. Scott was born in Anchorage and raised on Lake Clark in his parents’ secluded fishing lodge.
Michael kampnich has lived in Craig since 1985 and is a member of Craig’s City Council. He commercially fishes salmon on his boat with drift netting and longlines for halibut. He has been a continuous crew member or directing his own commercial fishing operation since 1988.