Candidates talk fish in Kodiak

At a forum sponsored by some of the North Pacific’s most powerful fishing trade organizations, four congressional hopefuls lined up in Kodiak on Oct. 12 to field questions on the commercial fishing industry.

For incumbent Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, it served as an opportunity to remind fishermen that she knows their complex and often fractured industry, and reiterate that the United Fishermen of Alaska, the state’s largest industry group, has long backed her campaign. The UFA continues to endorse her in the current cycle, though the organization itself made no donation to her campaign fund.

Her opponents, Independent senate candidates Breck Craig and Margaret Stock, along with Democratic challenger Ray Metcalfe, admitted they were less familiar with the topics and instead spoke about issues on a general level, without specifics.

Kodiak Republican Sen. Gary Stevens moderated the event and fielded question from three fishing industry representatives: Julie Matweyou of Alaska Sea Grant; Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank; and Jeff Stephen, director of the United Fishermen's Marketing Association.

Alaskan Leader Fisheries, Pacific Seafood Processors Association, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers, At-Sea Processors Association, Groundfish Forum, UFA, City of Kodiak and the Kodiak Island Borough sponsored the event.

Catch shares and the graying of the fleet

Fisheries are expensive to enter, and fishermen wanted to know how to bring more young fishermen onto the deck.

Candidates were asked how they would encourage more involvement from young fishermen, an issue that looms large in the minds of Alaska fishermen who fear more and more the so-called “graying of the fleet” — a phenomenon in which the average Alaska commercial fisherman is getting older and older.

Craig, Stock and Metcalfe all seemed to place much of the blame on catch shares, a hot topic in the Gulf of Alaska. Federal fisheries managers there are currently arguing over whether or not to apply a catch share system for Gulf of Alaska groundfish — an idea the city and borough of Kodiak have supported alongside several of the event’s sponsors.

Most federal fisheries operate under a quota program of some kind, but not without backlash. Some coastal communities and lower-level fishermen have a strained relationship with catch shares. Many believe quota systems create sharecroppers, concentrating the resource into the hands of the deep-pocketed and preventing young fishermen from entering the industry as owners and operators of their own boats.

Except Murkowski, the candidates each expressed some desire to give quota systems a face-lift or at least soften their perceived effects.

“There are things we could together do to prevent our fisheries from turning into a giant, multinational corporate conglomerate and wiping out our local fisheries communities,” said Stock.

Metcalfe and Craig both favored taking a hard look at catch shares or eliminating them entirely.

“I think we need to rethink the whole quota system,” said Craig. “This is not conducive to young people getting into the business.”

Metcalfe showed a deep anti-corporate streak, arguing that Alaska’s resources “are not being properly shared,” and that “there’s something wrong with putting corporations in front of people.” He later implied that he thinks the Magnuson-Stevens Act - the central federal fisheries law - should be amended to overhaul catch shares.

“When you privatize and enable catch shares, there will come a day when people who live here in Kodiak who don’t own any of the fish they’re fishing,” Metcalfe said. “I think we need to get back to the common ownership of the commonly held resource.”

Murkowski had a more nuanced answer on how to stop the graying of the fleet. She said young fishermen need whatever boost they can get from the federal government, in particular that young fishermen should “have access to the same loans a farmer would.”

The questioners also wanted to know what kind of faith each candidate placed in the North Pacific Fishery Management Council that governs all federal fisheries from three to 200 miles offshore, asking whether they favor letting the council do its job or having more congressional involvement ion federal fisheries.

Candidates each spoke on their support of the North Pacific council operate largely without congressional impediments except Metcalfe, who said the council needs a “legislative referee” from time to time to force actions they otherwise wouldn’t take.

The Magnuson-Stevens Act, which established U.S. fisheries in an Exclusive Economic Zone in 1976, is up for reauthorization this year, and fishermen wanted to know what, if anything, each candidate would change in the new draft.

“Frankenfish is bad. We hate it.”

Murkowski touted a long list of Congressional actions, including her withholding approval of a new U.S. Food and Drug Administration chief until the FDA required labeling for all genetically engineered fish.

Murkowski was blunt about the new fish, which grows twice as fast as wild salmon — a multimillion-dollar Alaska-based fishery at the core of the state’s marketing arm, the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, which is designed to pump up the Alaska wild seafood brand in the U.S. and abroad.

“Frankenfish is bad. We hate it,” she said.

The other candidates want labeling requirements as well. Metcalfe said “the people who regulate labeling should be given absolute authority,” while Stock gave a less intense answer about Alaska having “better fish” and wanting to see labeling.

International markets

Candidates didn’t have substantial answers to questions about two key Alaska seafood export markets in politically knotty places: Russia and the United Kingdom.

In response to economic sanctions, Russia banned U.S. seafood imports in 2014. Meanwhile, U.S. markets still import Russian products including pollock and crab. Both are often mislabeled as Alaska products, while Russian crab is often illegal, unreported or unregulated.

Candidates were asked whether the U.S. should ban Russian seafood imports in return.

Murkowski evaded the question and instead pointed to her success in passing a mandate that forbids the use of the “Alaska pollock” label for anything outside Alaska waters and said she has a similar provision in the works for golden king crab.

Stock attacked Murkowski’s real effectiveness on the Russian issue, saying “the current Alaska Congressional delegation has not made any progress on it,” but also not directly answering the question.

Candidates were also asked about the United Kingdom, which recently left the Europeans Union by a ballot vote most commonly called “Brexit.”

The UK is a key export market for canned Alaska salmon, and questioners wanted to know how each candidate would prioritize trade agreements industry had with the EU, in danger of dissolving after the Brexit vote.

Murkowski acknowledged the problem, said that the Alaska Congressional delegation and the U.S. needs to “make (trade agreements) a priority,” but had no answer for how.

Stock said the fallout from Brexit supporters, who she characterized as uninformed, would give the U.S. time to figure out the issue, but like Murkowski had no specifics.

Metcalfe called Brexit a “big mistake” and a move “backwards in terms of the evolution of society,” but had nothing to say about the specific trade agreements.

Craig acknowledged he was “not intimately familiar with the subject.”

Murkowski and fish politics

This marked her second fish-centric appearance in the state in as many weeks.

During an Oct. 6 speech to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Murkowski said “nothing is more political than fish,” a truism downplayed by candidate Craig when he commended the North Pacific council process for “taking(ing) the political out of the process.” Murkowski has the background, connections and donations to prove it.

Murkowski does see funds from other groups, though, having received in the neighborhood of $125,000 in donations from seafood companies, industry groups, lobbyists and individual fishermen in 2015 and 2016, according to contribution reports.

The same groups that sponsored the Kodiak debates are also Murkowski’s most generous fish-related campaign donors. Pacific Seafood Processors Association dumped $23,500 into Murkowski’s campaign, Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers $9,000, Trident Seafoods $20,100 and At-Sea Processors Association $5,000.

DJ Summers can be reached at [email protected]

10/19/2016 - 2:34pm