Kenai Classic draws politicians and deep pockets – Anchorage Daily News

SOLDOTNA — Alaska’s U.S. representative, the governor, several commissioners and more than half a dozen state legislators lured attendees to the Kenai Classic on Wednesday. Three hours of policy presentations and fisheries discussion provided the opening shot for the annual event that brings together policymakers and powerful industry leaders.

It’s a gathering that allows executives, fishing guides, and lobbyists to spend hours at a time in fishing boats on the turquoise Kenai river with elected officials, away from the eyes of the press or the public — with an opportunity to advocate and persuade. For most attendees — elected officials aside — the cost is several thousand dollars, all donated to the Kenai River Sportfishing Association.

Multiple requests to attend other portions of the event, including the banquet and other activities at the fishing lodge, were denied by the event organizers, citing the “privacy” of participants.

Monte Roberts, a longtime fishing guide and president of the Kenai River Professional Guide Association, said “from a policy standpoint, there’s a lot of dialogue that goes on during the Classic that really significantly impacts the Kenai.”

“It’s much more effective in casual situations,” said Roberts, who will serve as one of several fishing guides for participants, launching at dawn on Thursday and Friday. “Being able to talk to commissioners, the governor, legislators about their decisions and how they impact us at ground level is valuable during this time, and there’s more of them here because of this event.”

Roberts is participating in the Classic as a guide, and will bring participants on his fishing boat. But for most attendees — elected officials aside — the cost is several thousand dollars, which makes for an exclusive event.

By the time the roundtable attendees had dispersed Wednesday afternoon, with plans to reconvene for a banquet that evening at the Harry Gaines Fish Camp, Roberts had already talked to Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent Lang, three different Board of Fisheries members, and two legislators. “And I’ll probably get to talk to the governor before this is over,” he said, though he did not want to elaborate on what he had said to them.

Gov. Mike Dunleavy did not stay to mingle at the roundtable. He appeared shortly before giving his closing remarks and ducked out immediately afterward, refusing to talk to reporters.

“We know that politics play a role in fish, fisheries. It’s just the way it is,” Dunleavy told attendees during his brief remarks. “But here in Alaska, I think we’ve done a pretty good job historically in trying to manage based upon the data and based upon the science.”

[Alaska Gov. Dunleavy names ad consultant, talk show host Porcaro to commercial fisheries agency]

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola took a different approach. After addressing the crowd at the beginning of the roundtable, she took a seat in the front row and proceeded to take detailed notes throughout the three-hour event.

A figure that loomed large in the protection of sport fishing along the Kenai — Bob Penney — died earlier this year, three decades after the first Kenai Classic. The event is now named for Ted Stevens, who once used the annual fishing trip to lure fellow Senate members to Alaska, convincing them to tack a trip before or after to see rural parts of the state. Even without Stevens or Penney, the annual event remains a draw for people hoping to exert their influence.

Vincent-Lang said attending the Classic is “part of the job” — even if it means taking the heat from frustrated fishermen who have seen declines in the number of fish and opportunities to catch them.

“Sometimes people voice their concerns quite articulately about how they feel my management or the department’s management has been in terms of impacting their personal business and that’s understandable — it’s their livelihood — but sometimes it would be nicer to hear it a little kinder,” said Vincent-Lang.

The complexities of fish politics were on full display in the Soldotna Sport Complex, where the annual roundtable took place. Dunleavy spoke about the need for additional research. Peltola said even if everything were done correctly, it would still take decades for fishermen to again see the abundance they were once accustomed to.

“That is not to say we’re not going to do anything for 60 years. That’s to say if we’re pulling in the right direction and making the right moves, it could still take 12 generations of salmon to get to abundance again,” she said.

As for the criticism of an event that provides selective access to lawmakers thanks to a price tag that is prohibitive to most Alaskans, Peltola said she still has a balanced view thanks to other efforts she’s made to meet Alaskans elsewhere.

“I don’t have those same criticisms because I’m looking for every and any venue I can go to, to talk to people on the ground,” said Peltola. “I’ll go fish camp to fish camp on the Kuskokwim.”

While she’s out fishing the Classic, Peltola said her main goal is “to become much better at rod and reel fishing.”

“I’m not an expert on fishing. I know a little bit about fishing in one section of one river in Alaska,” Peltola told the crowd.

Marc Lester of the Daily News contributed to this story.

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