Stevens seeks 'consensus on ideas' to help ailing fishing industry

welchlanieLR.jpg KODIAK -- "If I’ve stepped on some toes today, it was intentional," said Alaska Republican Sen. Ted Stevens in his final remark to a gymnasium full of rapt listeners at the recent salmon summit in Kodiak.

As keynote speaker for the day-long event that focused on the state’s ailing salmon industry, Alaska’s senior senator told the 40 summit participants and audience of about 200 that he would do all he could to help, but he made it clear that it’s up to Alaskans to get the job done.

"My purpose in coming here today as your senator is to ask for your help," he said. "Your congressional delegation needs your consensus on ideas. We want to assist you on any good ideas that promote change and benefit Alaska’s coastal communities."

Stevens said everyone is painfully aware of the fights between fishing groups and the "blood feud" between harvesters and processors. "The brutal truth is that our coastal communities cannot survive unless we decide to work together for a common goal and use our strong sense of Alaska community to find solutions that will restore health to our fisheries," he said.

"Anything I say is meaningless if our communities are divided and Alaskans refuse to work together. We are too small to combat the global forces we face if we are fractured into small groups with no common vision."

It is now common knowledge that the dramatic growth and glut of farmed salmon during the past 15 years has marginalized Alaska’s wild-fish production and has taken away traditional markets.

Stevens said the crisis in the salmon industry has crept into our lives slowly - by changes in globalization of national economies, rapid transportation that moves goods across borders with greater frequency, and advances in fish farm technology.

"None of us can reverse those forces," he said. "But my great hope is that Alaska will be able to change with these times. This will take vision, courage and, above all, discipline. Our future depends on creation of more markets for high-value Alaska fish products. Our goal must be to have Alaska fish available and on the menus of every city in the nation and ultimately in every major market of the world."

Stevens said he has been talking with U.S. Department of Transportation officials about creating a system of regional airports that will ensure rapid access to transcontinental and international transportation for all fish products. He is also discussing ways to develop new packaging and marketing systems for Alaska seafood because "we have fished for and packaged our seafood in almost the same way for decades."

Stevens said the first barrier is lack of knowledge about customers and distribution systems. The second barrier, and perhaps the most difficult to conquer, is resistance to change.

For the short term, Stevens said several concepts can be pursued at the federal level to add stability while Alaska moves toward market independence. The congressional delegation will seek seed money to develop markets for high-value fish products and to identify and create new products.

Second, they will try to increase federal purchases for schools and other institutions.

Third, the delegation can strengthen the fishery finance program within the federal Department of Commerce for low interest, direct loans to fishermen and processors to modernize equipment for high-value production.

"I become increasingly angry over the way Congress responds to fishing communities," Stevens said. "We now fund almost $7 billion in agricultural assistance to farm communities, yet our nation’s fishermen are barely afforded access to low-interest loans, which we routinely pay back."

Regarding long-term solutions, Stevens said, "I ask you to consider certain principles when formulating your ideas. Any proposals should foster the ability to bring local, small-boat fishermen into developing markets with fish products they can realistically hope to market. In other words, proposals should have a sense of community built into each concept."

Stevens cautioned: "My guiding principle in working with you remains the same. This is not a political issue. Anyone who tries to put politics into seeking these solutions will fail."

In closing, Stevens said that he believes part of the long-term solution for Alaska’s seafood industry might stem from strange bedfellows - the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and natural gas. These developments will create a substantial revenue base for Alaska, and Stevens suggests designating part of the money to the protection and enhancement of fisheries.

"The day will come when oil and gas revenues will not be available," Stevens said. "When that occurs, we will have our permanent fund, but we should also have in the meantime dedicated funds for preserving and protecting the revenue base of this state forever, and that is the fisheries resource. It is the resource that will sustain our state far into the future."

Kodiak-based free-lance writer Laine Welch can be reached via e-mail at ([email protected]).

04/21/2002 - 8:00pm