Mary Peltola ran as pro-fish and anti-bycatch: Here’s what her agenda could look like in Congress
Translating a pro-fish platform into policy reality won’t be easy for Peltola, who will serve in the House minority, but experts say Peltola can still find ways to advance her fish-first agenda
U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola is seen in her official portrait. (Photo by Chris Witschy)
Mary Peltola, the Democrat who this year became Alaska’s first woman and first Native person to hold her state’s seat in the U.S. House of Representatives, ran a fish-powered campaign, with ads showing her slicing fresh salmon filets.
As a former tribal fisheries manager, Peltola’s election has brought hope to some of the rural, Indigenous Alaskans who have seen their subsistence and commercial salmon harvests plummet in recent years — especially in her home region of western Alaska.
Her campaign website features a whole page dedicated to her hostility toward bycatch and the Bering Sea trawl fleet.
Trawlers are vessels that scoop up huge nets full of whitefish, such as pollock, and sometimes unintentionally “bycatch” smaller amounts of salmon at the same time. For years, battles have raged over Bering Sea fisheries management and how much trawl bycatch is impacting western Alaska salmon declines, and Peltola put those issues at the center of her bid to serve in Congress.
“She’s Native and that’s why I voted for her — she gets it,” said Simeon Swetzof, an Indigenous fisherman from the Bering Sea island community of St. Paul and a longtime advocate for lower bycatch.
But translating a pro-fish platform into policy reality won’t come easily for Peltola. Her party just lost the majority in the House of Representatives, and Congress doesn’t directly manage her state’s federal fisheries. That work is done by a regional commission, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, whose 11 voting members are largely appointed by the governors of Alaska, Washington and Oregon.
“She’s a freshman legislator,” said Brent Paine, who runs a trade group of trawlers, United Catcher Boats, whose members fish in the Bering Sea. “She’s in the minority.”
Nonetheless, Paine and other fish policy experts said Peltola could still find ways to advance her fish-first agenda during her two-year term in the House, which starts in January. Here’s how.
Boosting tribes’ role in management
As a lawmaker, the most obvious way for Peltola to advance her priorities is through bills.
In her old job as head of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, Peltola pushed Congress to pass a bill with provisions expanding the North Pacific council to include two designated seats for Alaska Native tribes — a move that could tip the North Pacific council’s voting balance toward more aggressive limits on bycatch.
The North Pacific council currently has no designated tribal seat, unlike the council that manages fisheries on the West Coast, which has one.
At the time, Peltola said the legislation would make “essential changes to a broken system.”
“Representation matters,” Peltola said.
Peltola has other fisheries policy priorities, she added, including spending on science, research, and management, fisheries disaster relief, ports and harbor infrastructure, clean water and habitat restoration. The proposal to add tribal seats is also housed in a wider-ranging bill that would amend the Magnuson-Stevens Act, the nation’s overarching fisheries management legislation.
But several advocates aligned with Peltola, in interviews, singled out the addition of the tribal seats to the council as a major policy goal.
“If she gets something like that through — creating new, Indigenous, Alaska Native seats on the council — I would say she has been 100% successful at being pro-fish and achieving that campaign promise,” said Ephraim Froehlich, who runs a fisheries policy consulting firm, AKWA-DC, and used to work as an aide to Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski.
Proposal faces opposition
The late U.S. Rep. Don Young, the Republican who Peltola replaced, also supported the concept of adding tribal seats to the council, and he was working with proponents to sort out the details before his death earlier this year, said Alex Ortiz, an aide to Peltola who previously worked as Young’s chief of staff.
Now, Peltola has an important ally in Murkowski. Alaska’s senior senator endorsed the idea of the tribal seats in an email, saying that Alaska Natives have relied on marine resources “since time immemorial, and it is right that they should have dedicated seats at the table.”
But Murkowski also pointed to the sensitivity of the proposal. She said that changing the council’s makeup will be contentious, and that she’s focused on making sure the plan wouldn’t change how Alaskan appointees hold a majority of seats.
Opponents of the proposal include political and fishing industry players in the Pacific Northwest, who say the addition of Alaska Native tribal seats would dilute the voting power of the Washington and Oregon appointees on the council.
The industry’s critics say the opposition is because adding tribal seats would diminish trawlers’ influence over management decisions.
But Paine, who runs the trawling trade group, said he’s opposed to a selection process that sets aside seats for particular groups — noting that Native people have previously been appointed to Alaska’s council seats.
“And they were very good,” he said. “And they didn’t need a designated seat to get on this council.”
Peltola, in her email, said that one important undertone of the proposal is recognizing Alaska Natives’ government-to-government relationship with the federal government, “rather than being solely reliant on the whim of a particular state governor.”
“Sure, there are tribal members who are at the table at times,” Peltola said. “But going the extra step of ensuring representation at the federal level makes the most sense to most Alaskans I have heard from.”
Another challenge for Peltola will be her position in the House’s Democratic minority. But Peltola, who ran as a centrist, said in her email that she’s working to establish relationships across party lines.
One way she’s doing that, she said, is by reviving a tradition of “fish Fridays” that she started when she served in the Alaska House — informal meetings with lawmakers and staff over smoked salmon.
Whether those efforts will be enough to win compromises from the Republican majority, however, isn’t clear yet, said California Democratic Rep. Jared Huffman, who’s led the development of fisheries policy legislation as the chair of a key House subcommittee on water, oceans and wildlife.
“That’s one of the great questions that we’ll find out in the next Congress: How does the new Republican majority want to approach these types of issues?” Huffman said in a phone interview. “Do they want to work with centrist Democrats and do some problem solving? Or is it the zero-sum, scorched-earth, partisan exercise where they would look at Mary Peltola and see a seat that they’d like to win back — and not allow her to have any success?”
The executive branch and the bully pulpit
The halls of Congress, however, aren’t the only place that Peltola could have an impact. There’s also the executive branch.
The U.S. Department of Commerce houses the National Marine Fisheries Service, which manages Alaska’s federal fisheries in partnership with the North Pacific Council. That gives Biden administration appointees substantial power over agency policy.
“I would hope she’d be able to convince the powers that be to look out for our interests,” including Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, said Swetzof, the Bering Sea fisherman.
Conservation groups have been pushing the Commerce Department to reconsider how it applies 10 national fisheries standards set out in the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
The agency, in a report last week to the North Pacific council, said it’s considering a review of three of the standards — including those that apply to bycatch and the division of harvests between competing groups of fishermen.
Peltola would likely be consulted by the Biden administration in such a rulemaking process, policy experts said, and she wrote in her email that she considers herself a “liaison between Alaskans and the federal government.”
“My staff and I work with federal agencies every day on behalf of Alaskans,” she said.
Conservation advocates also said they expect Peltola to help elevate tribal and other requests for executive action from the Biden administration to create new marine protected areas in Alaska.
Those efforts — and possible fishing restrictions that could come with them — have faced skepticism from some fishing-industry groups. But supporters of the proposals say that such restrictions wouldn’t necessarily be incorporated into the new areas.
St. Paul Island, where the local tribal government has asked the federal government to create a marine sanctuary for the surrounding archipelago.
The tribal government in St. Paul, the Bering Sea island community, last year made a formal request to the federal government for the creation of a marine sanctuary in its Pribilof Islands archipelago. The administration is also considering the establishment of new protected areas through the president’s “America the Beautiful” initiative, which aims to conserve 30% of the nation’s lands and waters by 2030.
Peltola could have “significant influence” over the Biden administration’s conservation decisions “because the rest of the Alaska delegation is less likely to be vocally in support,” said Froehlich, the policy advisor.
“If the congresswoman for all Alaska is advocating for these, it gives it significant oomph,” he said.
One other tool Peltola has, now that she’s been elected to a full two-year term, is her bully pulpit.
Advocates who have been fighting for bycatch reductions said their efforts drew new levels of attention last year during Peltola’s “pro-fish” campaign — and that they hope she’ll help keep up her focus.
“There have been more stories and more headlines on the federal fisheries and the bycatch issue than ever before,” said Lindsey Bloom, a campaign strategist with a conservation group called SalmonState. “We know the light is there, and she’s contributing to that.”
So far, Peltola does not seem to be softening her rhetoric.
Earlier this month, she wrote a letter to North Pacific council members taking aim at bycatch and the products made from trawl harvests. “Writing off salmon and the people who depend on them” in pursuit of fake crab and fish sticks, she wrote, “would be an unconscionable tragedy.”
This article was originally published in Northern Journal, a newsletter from journalist Nathaniel Herz. Subscribe at this link.
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