ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - While communities and fishermen in Bristol Bay are facing an immediate challenge in deciding if and how to hold the $300 million salmon fishery in a few weeks, an appointment to the Board of Fisheries is adding to the stress felt by many in the region.
On April 1, Gov. Mike Dunleavy announced appointments to boards and commissions. Among the governor’s appointments is Abe Williams, who is an employee of the Pebble Partnership, the company looking to build a open pit copper, gold and molybdenum mine in Southwest Alaska. According to the company's preferred alternative plan submitted to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the fully-developed mine site would be more than 8,300 acres, a land area the size of the City of Wasilla.
Williams was born and raised in Naknek, currently lives in Anchorage, and is a fourth-generation Bristol Bay fisherman. However, his position on Pebble Mine has bothered both commercial and sport fishermen in Bristol Bay. Williams is currently the Director of Regional Affairs for the Pebble Partnership.
In 2015, Williams was elected to serve as the Board President for the Bristol Bay Regional Seafood Development Association. His election and reports that followed prompted the organization to issue a notice to its members that “The position of the BBRSDA and the near-unanimous views of its 1,650 members are unchanged. A resolution passed by the board of directors in 2014 stating that the BBRSDA opposes large-scale mining in Bristol Bay’s watersheds is, and continues to be, the position of this organization.”
In April of 2019, Williams and five other fishermen sued the BBRSDA for using part of its 1
percent tax collected from the Bristol Bay drift fleet to advocate against the Pebble Mine. The Pebble Partnership funded the lawsuit. The judge dismissed the case the following month.
“I recognize the concern out there, and many folks probably don’t necessarily agree with my position in regard to that project. But I’ve sat down with numerous fishermen in regard to regulation and or concerns that we’ve seen eye-to-eye on,” Williams told KTUU. “My job finds me in communities like Iliamna and other communities talking about the project itself and kind of what it means for the region. Does that preclude me from being appointed or sitting on the Board of Fisheries? I don’t think so. I think it just brings in a level of diversity in my background that really helps me be better positioned to sit in a coveted spot like this, if you will.”
Williams says that he became involved with the Pebble Project around 2010.
"I was still on the Paug-Vik board as president and coming out of some very poor years with regard to price-per-pound for sockeye and how that had certain effects on the region economically. It opened my eyes to different options to make sure we weren’t losing our population to out-migration,” Williams said. “So it’s really allowed me to just become well-informed on how we develop our resources and where we do that and how we do it responsibly.”
Williams’ appointment has drawn sharp criticism from both commercial fishing and sportfishing interests.
“To be completely honest, when I heard of his appointment, I thought it was an April Fool’s joke. And that’s nothing personal against Abe, just that his name is the last that I would expect to be put forward of our fleet or our industry or fishermen really in general,” said Katherine Carscallen, Director of Commercial Fishermen for Bristol Bay and a third-generation fisherman in Bristol Bay. “Although he is a commercial fisherman himself, his decade-long history as an advocate for the Pebble Mine, his name at this point is synonymous with Pebble Mine.”
Carscallen says she would like the confirmation delayed until the legislature is able to fully review the qualifications of individuals and allow testimony. A law that went into effect Tuesday granted those wishes.
HB309 temporarily extends the time for the Legislature to meet in a joint session to take up the Governor’s cabinet appointments and appointments to state boards and commissions. The bill allows the Legislature the option of confirming governor appointees prior to the convening of the 32nd Alaska State Legislature.
“A name like Abe would have brought hours of testimony in opposition, and not just from the commercial fishing industry, from the sportfishing industry and subsistence sectors as well. The timing, it seems to take advantage of the situation where you’re skating the public process,” Carscallen said.
Wednesday, Trout Unlimited Alaska issued a statement on Williams’ appointment:
“Whether you are a commercial, sport, or subsistence fishermen, Abe Williams’ appointment to the Board of Fisheries is absurd and makes clear where Governor Dunleavy’s allegiances lie... The Board of Fisheries is charged with conserving and developing our fisheries, but if the legislature confirms this appointment it will send the message that it’s okay to trade away a prized wild salmon and trout fishery." - Nelli Wiliams, Alaska Director of Trout Unlimited
The seat on the board Williams would replace is currently held by Fritz Johnson, also a drift fisherman in Bristol Bay who lives in Dillingham. Johnson’s term expires June 30.
“It’s a 180 change. Fritz has lived here for 30 or 40 years and really represents the value of our fleet and commercial fishermen in general and subsistence use. He’s a rural resident, and to take that away and replace it with an Anchorage-based resident who has spent a decade on behalf of a mine, has sued our trade group in an attempt to stop them from working in the best interest of our fishermen, it’s a complete 180 and its unacceptable for us,” Carscallen said. “At various times he has used positions he’s held to portray a divide in the commercial fishing industry that really is not accurate, and this appointment to the Board of Fish, if it holds, would help him in his advocacy towards furthering Pebble Mine, and that’s our problem with it. This doesn’t unite and doesn’t represent any user group the Board of Fish is meant to represent. It really helps the mining project and that’s why it’s unacceptable.”
Williams downplayed any differences that fishermen in Bristol Bay would see with him replacing Johnson on the board.
“I like Fritz. I’ve worked with him when I spent time on the BBRSDA board. So I think there are some minor differences, but not a lot,” Williams said. “I’m Alaska Native, I spent a lot of years growing up next to my grandmother by my parents harvesting subsistence salmon or seafood if you will. I enjoy getting out and sportfishing. I’m an outdoors kind of guy and I like to get out with my family. I just think that I bring a diversity to the table that’s hard to challenge.”
Williams does have some support in the village of Iliamna. The village 120 miles east of Dillingham and close to the Pebble deposit is home to some Alaskans who believe the Pebble Partnership has demonstrated that the mine and the fishery can co-exist.
“We have one person that is willing to listen to us. And Abe, he’ll come and talk to you. Even if you disagree with him, he’ll talk with you and discuss with you and listen to what you have to say. And that to me means more than anything,” Sue Anelon, a subsistence fisherman in Iliamna said. “It doesn’t matter what side you’re on, he will listen to you.”
Anelon’s husband is a commercial fisherman in Bristol Bay. Her brother is also a commercial fisherman and was one of six plaintiffs along with Williams in the lawsuit against the regional seafood development association.
“I may not totally agree with everything with what Abe and I do, but at least I know that he will speak up for me. And for all of us.”
KTUU requested a comment from Gov. Dunleavy regarding Williams' qualifications and connection to the Pebble Mine and received the following response:
“The Governor appointed Mr. Williams to the Board of Fish due to his knowledge and understanding of fisheries issues in Alaska. He is also a lifelong Alaskan and a fourth generation commercial fisherman in the Bristol Bay region.” - Jeff Turner, Deputy Dir. Communications, Office of Gov. Mike Dunleavy
Copyright 2020 KTUU. All Rights Reserved.