Kodiak fishery debate highlights differences between Peltola and her House rivals

The newly elected Democrat defended legislative plans to increase tribal authority over fisheries and boost bycatch-reduction powers

By: - October 5, 2022 2:27 pm
Candidates for Alaska's sole U.S. House seat hold signs at Tuesday fishery forum in Kodiak indicating their position on an Alaska waiver in the century-old Jones Act. Only Rep. Mary Peltola, second from left, opposed the waiver. Peltola, a Democrat, defended her work on an update to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Those updates were opposed by Republican Nick Begich, far left, Libertarian Chris Bye, third from left, and Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin, far right. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Candidates for Alaska’s sole U.S. House seat hold signs at Tuesday fishery forum in Kodiak indicating their position on an Alaska waiver in the century-old Jones Act. Only U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, second from left, opposed the waiver. Peltola, a Democrat, defended her work on an update to the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. Those updates were opposed by Republican Nick Begich, far left, Libertarian Chris Bye, third from left, and Republican former Gov. Sarah Palin, far right. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

For U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, the Democrat who won August’s special election to serve the remainder of the late Don Young’s term, Tuesday’s fishery-focused candidate debate in Kodiak was an opportunity to draw sharp contrasts with her three rivals.

Peltola defended the ongoing efforts to update the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act – an effort in which she is immersed, as a member on the House Resources Committee and as a new federal legislator who got into the race in part because of her concerns about faltering fisheries.

The act, originally passed in 1976, governs fisheries in federal waters around the nation through regional management councils. For the federal waters off Alaska, source of the nation’s biggest harvests, the body is the North Pacific Fishery Management Council.

The act and the North Pacific Council both need updates, Peltola said. Much has changed since the last update, which was in 2007, including the warming climate, she said. In Alaska, fish-dependent communities have shifted from abundance to scarcity – not just her home region of the Kuskokwim River, which has suffered through successive salmon run failures, but regions around the state. And the council system set up by federal act has not responded adequately, she said.

Low clouds hang over Kodiak's St. Paul Harbor on Monday. Kodiak, one of the nation's top seafood ports, was the site of candidate forums this week that focused on fishery issues. The Kodiak Chamber of Commerce has been sponsoring such events for three decades. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Low clouds hang over Kodiak’s St. Paul Harbor on Monday. Kodiak, one of the nation’s top seafood ports, was the site of candidate forums this week that focused on fishery issues. The Kodiak Chamber of Commerce has been sponsoring such events for three decades. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“The reason that this effort came about is because the process of working with the council works well for the biggest, the wealthiest, the most connected among us. But if you don’t happen to be big and wealthy and connected, it is very hard to get any inroads in the council process,” she said.

But the changes being contemplated – including the addition of two tribal seats on the North Pacific Council, tighter limits of harvests of forage fish and a mechanism for stricter rules on bycatch, the accidental harvests of nontargeted species – drew criticism from the other three candidates.

“This is a Democrat-pushed bill led by a legislator from the state of California,” Republican businessman Nick Begich said, referring to Rep. Jared Huffman, chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee’s Water, Ocean and Wildlife Subcommittee.

He characterized proposals to tighten bycatch-limiting authority as dangerous. The proposed rewording “could put family businesses and larger businesses in jeopardy. These businesses are making large capital investments that span many years and horizons and this has the potential to close off fisheries without any answer to what happens to those businesses, what happens to those investments, what happens to those families,” Begich said.

The four U.S. House candidates prepare to start Monday's fisheries debate in Kodiak. At the head table are, from left, Nick Begich, Rep. Mary Peltola, Chris Bye and former Gov. Sarah Palin. Kodiak fisheries experts are on either side, preparing to present questions and moderate the event. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
The four U.S. House candidates prepare to start Monday’s fisheries debate in Kodiak. At the head table are, from left, Nick Begich, Rep. Mary Peltola, Chris Bye and former Gov. Sarah Palin. Kodiak fisheries experts are on either side, preparing to present questions and moderate the event. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Former Gov. Sarah Palin, another Republican, said she opposes the reauthorization as proposed “because I don’t know enough about it. I don’t think any of us know enough about it intricately. But that’s a problem with the federal government, too. They allow changes to be made where there’s so much ambiguity, there’s so much flexibility given to the bureaucrats. The bureaucrats get to make the decisions. They don’t care about the science. They care about the politics involved.”

Libertarian Chris Bye, a Fairbanks fishing guide, said he opposes the reauthorization “because it lacks local and state input. It’s literally being drawn up by bureaucrats who will never suffer the consequences of their decision-making in D.C.” He said he appreciates the addition of two more Alaska seats to the council, but “I would appreciate it if it was more Interior-focused and not necessarily based on color of skin.”

Candidates differ on approaches to bycatch reduction

Peltola, who is in the process of piecing together the act’s reauthorization, pushed back against the criticism.

“I am carrying forward Don Young’s legacy in working on this bill,” she said

And giving regulators more power to limit bycatch is important, she said.

“I’m not interested in punishing small-boat fishermen,” she said. “But when we’re talking about industrial fishing, we’re talking about millions of metric tons of juvenile halibut, salmon and crab thrown overboard every year. And this has been going on for 30 years,” she said. When rural people who need wild fish and game to feed their families are “ratcheting back and they’re at about a third of their need, and industrial fishing isn’t ratcheting back, something’s wrong.”

Palin placed much of the blame for bycatch on foreign fishing fleets. And she said she believes bycatch rather than climate change is depressing the fish stocks.

U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola converses with a Kodiak constiuent, Carmen Witte, in the lobby of Kodiak High School on Tuesday. Peltola spoke with Kodiak residents, including Witte, after participating earlier in the evening in a House candidate fishery forum held by the local chamber of commerce. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola converses with a Kodiak constituent, Carmen Witte, in the lobby of Kodiak High School on Tuesday. Peltola spoke with Kodiak residents, including Witte, after participating earlier in the evening in a House candidate fishery forum held by the local chamber of commerce. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“The bycatch issue, that’s obvious. You can be out there watching what happens and this decimation of some of our stock because of the bycatch issue,” she said. Other countries, she said, “don’t seem to care” about the impacts. “And it comes down to enforcing our laws. We can talk a lot about studies of the climate change, studies of who’s doing what out there. But all there seems to be coming from the feds is studies and talks. And let’s reinforce our existing laws and figure out how to balance all of this, especially – again – tackling what’s most obvious, and that is this disrespect for the conservation that needs to be first and foremost in our fisheries, by – again – other countries, especially trawlers.”

Begich downplayed climate change as an issue for fisheries-protection action. “There’s nothing we can do about it. There’s nothing that Congress can do to change the climate of the Earth.” Instead, he said, government officials should consider predator control to boost fisheries. “That’s something that I hear from people in coastal Alaska all the time, that the predators of these fish are getting out of control and we’ve got to do more to manage predation,” he said.

The House candidates’ debate in Kodiak was one of three in a series held Monday and Tuesday that were part of a tradition going back three decades. The events, touted as the state’s only candidate forums focused specifically on fisheries, were hosted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce and broadcast on Kodiak public radio station KMXT.

Seabirds swarm the dock at the Trident Seafoods plant in Kodiak on Monday. Kodiak, one of the nation's top fishing ports, hosted candidate debates this week, extending a tradition that goes back three decades. In one of the Tuesday debates, House candidates presented differing views of how to address ecological issues like climate change. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Seabirds swarm the dock at the Trident Seafoods plant in Kodiak on Monday. Kodiak, one of the nation’s top fishing ports, hosted candidate debates this week, extending a tradition that goes back three decades. In one of the Tuesday debates, House candidates presented differing views of how to address ecological issues like climate change. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Begich, Palin and Bye spent much of the Tuesday night forum bashing the federal government in general and the Biden administration in particular. Their criticism extended beyond fisheries issues to oil, mining and other resource issues.

“The federal government’s role in our life is supposed to be tiny, and yet, they’re out of control,” Palin said. She repeatedly called for more Alaska access to develop the state’s “God-given resources,” both renewable and non-renewable.

Peltola stuck to fishery issues.

Beyond Magnuson-Stevens Act changes, she said she wants to extend some U.S. Agriculture Department benefits programs to fisheries. She also said she hopes to improve the process through which seafood companies hire workers with H-2B visas, a type of temporary work permit on which the industry has relied for staffing processing plants. The industry needs a reliable workforce, Peltola said. “If we have to import them, then we have to make sure that those people are here legally and appropriately,” she said.

Senate event showcases Murkowski’s expertise and Chesbro’s concerns

The Senate candidate forum that followed on Tuesday featured a different kind of contrast and had just two of the three candidates in the race: Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican incumbent, and Pat Chesbo, her Democratic challenger.

Murkowski commented on the absence of her main rival, Republican Kelly Tshibaka.

Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican incumbent, speaks at Tuesday's fishery forum hosted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. She detailed her work on behalf of Alaska fisheries and discussed plans that include more funding for scientific research, innovations to expand the fishery workforce and infrastructure investments in ports and harbors. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Sen. Lisa Murkowski, the Republican incumbent, speaks at Tuesday’s fishery forum hosted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. She detailed her work on behalf of Alaska fisheries and discussed plans that include more funding for scientific research, innovations to expand the fishery workforce and infrastructure investments in ports and harbors. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

“As a candidate I have been here for every one of these. I think it’s important that you show up,” she said. “I am disappointed that one of our challengers is not here with us today.”

Tshibaka, who is backed by former President Donald Trump, is challenging Murkowski from the right. She was at a fundraiser in Texas on Tuesday.

For Murkowski, the forum was a chance to display her long legislative experience and her encyclopedic knowledge of fishery issues, which includes family members’ work on fishing vessels.

“I have walked the docks in, I think, nearly every coastal community in this state, listening to fishermen and small boat owners,” she said. “My job as your senator is to really keep our fisheries strong for all. This is intervening on trade issues. This is helping to build out the markets. This is helping to incent our young fishermen to enter a graying fleet, and particularly when the barriers to entry are as high as they are. This is tackling issues like IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing) and climate change. It’s about funding, funding to provide for sustainability and stability.”

Democrat Pat Chesbro, a candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks on Tuesday in the fishery forum held by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. A lifelong educator, she admitted to limited expertise in fisheries but expressed concern about run failures and the effects on communities. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)
Democrat Pat Chesbro, a candidate for U.S. Senate, speaks on Tuesday in the fishery forum held by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. A career educator, she admitted to limited expertise in fisheries but expressed concern about run failures and the effects on communities. (Photo by Yereth Rosen/Alaska Beacon)

Chesbro, in contrast, admitted she has little background in fisheries.

“In preparing for tonight I have learned a lot, and I have learned I have much to learn,” said Chesbro, who was a teacher, school principal, Matanuska-Susitna School District superintendent and university professor and acting dean. “I guess I think fisheries are the second most valuable resource we have in our state, the first being our human resource.”

She said she is concerned about fishery disasters and what appears to be inadequate and slow responses to them. But she confessed to having little personal experience even with sportfishing, though it is hugely popular in her home area, the Mat-Su Borough.

“I would say that when we went fishing, I read books,” she said.

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Yereth Rosen
Yereth Rosen

Yereth Rosen came to Alaska in 1987 to work for the Anchorage Times. She has been reporting on Alaska news ever since, covering stories ranging from oil spills to sled-dog races. She has reported for Reuters, for the Alaska Dispatch News, for Arctic Today and for other organizations. She covers environmental issues, energy, climate change, natural resources, economic and business news, health, science and Arctic concerns -- subjects with a lot of overlap. In her free time, she likes to ski and watch her son's hockey games.

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