KODIAK - A sharp, wide-ranging debate on Alaska fisheries Wednesday evening saw organizers and Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich put Republican challenger Dan Sullivan on the defensive over his pro-development record, with Sullivan delivering some targeted shots of his own to keep Begich from getting too comfortable.
In the two candidates' first joint public appearance in more than a month, Sullivan, a former state attorney general and natural resources commissioner, faced probing questions from Begich and a panel of fisheries journalists on his position on the controversial Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska, as well as on the potential for oil and gas extraction from the same area, which one panelist referred to as the nation's "fish basket."
Sullivan had initially said he'd miss the debate but changed his mind and appeared before the crowd of 150 in a high school auditorium after spending two days in Kodiak -- one on the stump with Republican U.S. Sen. Lisa Murkowski -- focused on the fishing industry.
It's an area where Sullivan has admitted lacking professional knowledge, setting up a tough showdown with Begich, who arrived Wednesday evening with a gold salmon pin on his blazer. Begich has chaired a key fisheries committee in the U.S. Senate for the last three years, and owns a long voting record that leaves fewer unknowns.
That made for a tough audience for Sullivan, too, in a port city of about 6,500 people that produced an estimated $400 million in seafood in 2011, which ranks it among the top commercial fishing ports nationwide.
Local candidates put pictures of fish on their campaign signs here, and the city has its own fisheries journalist, Laine Welch, who was one of the debate's panelists.
From the start of the action Wednesday, the palpably curious panelists tried to pin down where Sullivan stands on a swath of fisheries issues -- at one point teaming up with Begich to pepper Sullivan with five questions in a row.
"We've heard a lot from you," Welch told Begich at one point. "We really haven't had an opportunity to question Mr. Sullivan."
Sullivan supplied the panelists, and the crowd, with answers — and like Begich's responses, some were specific, and some were vague.
One of the first questions was about Pebble, a proposed open pit mine that would rank among the world's largest if it were built.
It's planned for the headwaters of Bristol Bay, an area that produces nearly half of the world's sockeye salmon, and it pits boosters of natural resource extraction against fishermen, who fear the mine could threaten their industry. The federal Environmental Protection Agency is proposing limits on mining in the area that could derail the project.
Begich opposes the mine, and made that position clear Wednesday, repeating his frequent refrain that it's the "wrong mine in the wrong place" in an answer that drew a "bravo" from one audience member.
Sullivan said he'd "never, in my entire career," supported the Pebble project, but added that he wants a fair permitting process that he would also support "for the fishing industry, or any other industry" — a response that drew quick objections from Democrats, who reminded reporters in an emailed statement that Sullivan's former campaign manager Ben Mohr once served as a spokesman for Pebble.
Another question where Sullivan seemed shaky was about his position on the potential for oil and gas development in the Bristol Bay region. That question was posed twice — once by a panelist, then a second time by Begich, whose own response was a flat "no."
Sullivan didn't give a yes or no answer, instead responding that he would be "looking at the science," and at the positions of federal agencies.
Sullivan faced more fastballs on climate change, on genetically modified fish and on Canadian mines in watersheds that drain through the United States -- and he scored base hits on a few.
Asked about the Mount Polley Mine in British Columbia, where the collapse of a tailings pond sent contaminated water toward salmon habitat, Sullivan responded that "such a mine that's cutting corners should never have been allowed to move forward."
That was even more forceful than the response from Begich, who said the Canadians "have to take care of what's downstream."
And when Sullivan was asked about a company run by his brother -- which one of the panelists said sells Canadian farm-raised fish to China -- he responded: "I'm against Frankenfish."
Begich wasn't let off the hook entirely, as Sullivan threw a few fastballs of his own. The Republican used one of his allotted questions to ding Begich on a federal permit exemption that's set to expire this year without action from Congress — a significant concern for fishermen.
"Why weren't you able to get this to the Senate floor and passed before our Congress adjourned last month?" Sullivan asked.
Begich shot back: "We are going to have a solution to this by the end of the year."
Sullivan used another question to hit Begich on what Sullivan described as a "special carve-out" -- legislation that would benefit a specific fishing sector called the Amendment 80 fleet.
Employees of one Washington-based fishing company in that sector, as well as its lobbyist, have donated thousands of dollars to Begich's campaign -- and another corporation connected to the fishing company has given $100,000 to a super PAC allied with Begich.
"I will never sell out Alaska's fishermen for Outside interests," Sullivan said, drawing light applause.
Begich said he wouldn't do "anything that harms Alaska fisheries," and returned to the subject even when he was asked a different question, adding: "I vote for what's right for Alaska."