The North Pacific Fishery Management Council has approved changes to its public input process after “instances of profanity or threats” were included in comments at a recent meeting.
The council — the primary entity that manages Alaska’s federal fisheries — made changes that included allowing staff to remove comments that are inconsistent with policy, such as those that use vulgar language, personal attacks, offensive terms, service or product promotions, unsupported accusations, or comments that are not related to fisheries or are off topic.
Comment periods will also change, such as open commenting only after materials are posted online, and closing comments earlier. In addition, the comments will not be displayed until after the comment deadline closes.
Kodiak fisherman and advocates are torn on the issue. Some are concerned that the changes make the process less transparent, while others said the changes were needed after the quality of public comments seen at this year’s meeting.
Longtime Kodiak fisherman Alexus Kwachka, who has been commenting at the meetings for the past 20 years, was concerned about transparency.
“I’m a little concerned about (the council) determining which comments are going to be posted,” he said. “I think this is a public process, and when you start censoring a public process, it's a slippery slope.”
He said that when a public resource is managed by a small group of people, public input — whether it’s speaking up at meetings or submitting public comments — is the only way to fight for an issue.
Others are worried about the decrease in time to comment.
“Does that mean the public would have roughly three to six days to submit comments? Many Alaska fishing trips last longer than that,” wrote Jessica Hathaway in the National Fisherman.
Other fishery participants and groups thought that the changes were needed.
They viewed many of the comments as treating the meeting like social media or blog posts, where comments were made about other comments instead of directly about the particular issue being discussed.
During the meeting, one council member said some of the comments created a “scary” and “intimidating” environment to voice opinions on federal issues.
Linda Kozak, a fisheries consultant from Kodiak, recommended to the council many of the changes that were made, specifically because of the unprofessional and social media-like behavior of some commentators.
“Social media degrades rapidly into some pretty, vile things, and that is not the purpose of this,” Kozak said.
The purpose, she said, is to “provide substantive comments on regulatory proposals,” not “tit-for-tat.”
Julie Bonney, the executive director of the Kodiak-based Alaska Groundfish Data Bank, said many of the comments were “disrespectful.”
Rebecca Skinner, the executive director of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, said she supported the changes because they are aimed at keeping the environment professional and respectful, but they are also similar to comment requirements in previous years.
“The comment deadline used to be seven or eight days prior to the start of the Advisory Panel meeting,” she said.
Moving the deadline back moves the time to comment to five days prior to the start of the Advisory Panel.
She said using a format in which other comments are available to the public made the input process feel like social media.
“When you have commenters responding to other comments, that becomes much less useful to the process, and to the decision maker, because the comments are not giving any sort of guidance,” she said. “The comments are not directly addressing the subject.”