Fields’ voice never louder as he ends nine-year council run
KODIAK — Duncan Fields ended his nine years on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in signature style at his final meeting in his hometown.
In talks over Gulf of Alaska bycatch measures and catch shares, he tried to set aside some proposed groundfish quota for owner-operators only.
The council didn’t take up the motion. Nobody would second it for a reading.
From the onset, he’s had a particular vision for how North Pacific federal fisheries should look, and he’s lost a lot of votes along the way. As time has passed, though, the State of Alaska has come closer and closer to it.
Although he’s leaving the council, he isn’t leaving the public arena and is running as an independent for the Alaska House of Representatives challenging Kodiak Rep. Louise Stutes.
Fields counts his greatest successes — and failures — as somehow related to active participation in fisheries.
“Duncan has a reputation not being afraid to take an unpopular position and lose a vote 10-1,” said fellow council member and Alaska Department of Fish and Game Commissioner SamCotten.
An attorney and salmon fisherman in Kodiak, Fields had already served on the council’s Advisory Panel for seven years when Gov. Sarah Palin appointed him to the council along with current Cotten in 2007, replacing Doug Hogel and Stephanie Madsen.
Gov. Sean Parnell renominated him in 2010 and again in 2013, maxing out the statutory three consecutive three-years terms council members are allowed under the Magnuson-Stevens Act.
Wasilla fisherman David Long also served his last day on the council after a single term.
“I stepped in to the council room nine years ago ready to fight,” Fields said. “Gerry Merrigan was there ahead of me, he was equally conversant, and we were the two young kids on the block. We were ready to change the world.”
Changing the world meant something specific. Fields brought two priorities to the council.
“One, protecting rural Alaska fishing within the communities and providing access to marine resources,” Fields said. “The number two priority is to have people with an ownership interest that are actively engaged in fishing being able to obtain the rewards from their fishing.”
Community Quota Entity programs, which give fishing quota to coastal groups rather than to persons, became a pet project of his. He and the council carved out six amendments to the program and eventually implemented the new entities.
Fields similarly counts the abolition of hired skippers in the halibut fishery in his win column.
In 1993, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council created an Individual Fishing Quota, or IFQ, program for halibut and sablefish in the North Pacific.
The program assigned quota shares to fishermen based on their historical participation in the fishery, and allowed share transfers among fishermen.
The North Pacific council passed a rule in 2013 that prohibited the use of hired masters to harvest any quota acquired after Feb. 12, 2010.
A U.S. District Court has since ruled that the rule broke administrative laws, however, and a ruling on a motion to overturn it is pending.
Not all attempts to ensure active participation were successful for Fields.
“The second thing I was very interested in because of its impact in Kodiak was making adjustments to the Bering Sea crab program to create active participation requirements for anybody with quota shares,” he said. “While we looked at that over a long period of time, I and the council were largely unsuccessful in changing that program for any substantive good.”
Along with three governors, Fields has worked on the council alongside their three different commissioners of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game – Denby Lloyd, Cora Campbell, and Cotten, appointed by Gov. Bill Walker in 2014.
Commissioners are expected to lead the six Alaska voting council members and steer votes towards goals that align with the administration.
Fields said his relationships with commissioners were always cordial, but some possibly more productive than others.
“The ability to affect change ebbs and flows with your co-council members,” Fields said. “I’ve enjoyed good relationships throughout the three commissioners over a nine-year period of time. A couple of the commissioners I had deeper and more personal relationships with, and perhaps a greater ability to build a coalition for change.”
Participation in fisheries forms the core of Gulf of Alaska bycatch management measures, Fields’ last large-scale regulation package. Different commissioners have taken different routes to address the halibut and chinook salmon bycatch issues in the Gulf of Alaska groundfish fisheries.
Lloyd didn’t want to take up the issue at all. Fields said he likely didn’t relish the time and expense. Campbell introduced the idea of catch shares. Cotten took the last step to Fields’ position, recognizing that catch shares can have unwanted blowback.
“I think the state’s goals about the Alaska coastal communities have largely remained the same,” said Fields. “I think there are different ideas about the tools or the means to the common end, but the end in and of itself really doesn’t change from one commissioner to another.”
“Duncan’s been pretty consistent,” said Cotten. “The administration’s positions have changed. None of the administrations have ever been interested in limiting access to fisheries, but Duncan and I both felt that if you did this rationalization wrong, it would really damage some of these communities.”
Mike Szymanski, a government affairs coordinator with Fisherman’s Finest and council attendee for the last 25 years, said Fields finds himself now more closely aligned with the administration’s goals, but that his voice hasn’t shifted with the times.
“From the day he took office I’ve watched his ability to represent Kodiak and his sector. He’s been effective,” said Szymanski.
“He’s been a voice people listen to. His description of his philosophy is that his job on the council is not only to represent those who testify, the lobbyists…but the voices of the people who did not testify. I sincerely believe Duncan will go down as the best single representative of that voice I’ve seen.”
The council, he said, rarely has a member with Fields’ ability to digest information and willingness to press it on the council. Even fellow Alaskans on the council disagreed with some of his motions.
Like Szymanski, Cotten said Fields’ effectiveness only improved with time. The council valued his attorney’s skill to mine documents for information, his memory, and his loquacity
“I think his effectiveness has become better,” said Cotten. “He became an expert mechanic. We may disagree on some things, but he’s pushed me to be more substantive in my own arguments.”
Cotten has high praise for Fields’ and Long’s replacements: Theresa Peterson, who also hails from Kodiak, and Buck Laukitis. Still, he said the council will lose a valuable asset with Fields.
“I voted against what he had to say a lot of times, but I did end up admiring and respective his unabashed advocacy and his tenacity,” said Cotten.
“That experience and ability to make motions and have the historical perspective to remember something that happened on Amendment 91 from six years ago. Certainly experience that he brought won’t be there anymore.”
Fields now makes the fourth former council member on his street in Kodiak, neighboring Kevin O’Leary, Doug Hodel, and Stosh Anderson.
DJ Summers can be reached at email@example.com.