"With fisheries, it's almost the forgotten resource of our state as an economic driver. It's almost like they are an afterthought. We have to realign that," said Mark Begich, Democratic candidate for Alaska governor, in an interview during his trip to Kodiak last week.
Begich came to Kodiak despite the cancellation of the Oct. 22 fisheries debate caused by a no-show by his Republican opponent, Mike Dunleavy, who has not responded to requests to share his ideas and vision for one of Alaska's oldest industries.
Begich spoke easily and at length on a wide range of fishing industry topics.
He called state funding for fisheries research and stock assessments a top priority.
"We are never going to be able to manage our fisheries resource the proper way without it. And I think there are opportunities through federal, state as well as foundation money that I believe is out there to help us do this," he said.
Begich said he is a strong supporter of Alaska's hatchery program.
"I know there is some conversation going on about hatchery fish impacts in the ocean … but there is no real science around that and the hatcheries have been very successful for us as a state," he said.
In terms of selecting an Alaska Department of Fish and Game commissioner, Begich said good management skills and the ability to bring people together are critical.
"People are frustrated. They feel like their voice isn't heard. We need commissioners who are willing to step up to the plate and recognize that it's their job to bring people together, solve problems and move forward," Begich said. "Obviously, I would want him or her to be knowledgeable about fisheries. We need someone who understands the controversies that are out there, the uniqueness of our resource, and how to balance it with making sure we do things for the long term and not for the moment."
The average age of Alaska's fishing permit holders is 50, and Begich believes the state can help fend off a "graying of the fleet" crisis and give young entrants a boot up.
"First, we have to make sure the fisheries remain as stable as possible so future generations can get into that business. Another issue is the capital it takes," Begich said. "We should look at how to utilize the Alaska Industrial Development and Export Authority (AIDEA), which is a financing arm of the state, and is usually designed for big projects. We should figure out if they can be a player in helping to bring low cost capital to the table so that people who want to get into fishing have a chance and are not denied because they don't have the money or the capacity to borrow. I think there is a tool here that has been underutilized by the state for the fishing industry and a lot of the small business industries that we have."
The Trump administration's push for offshore fish farms gets a thumbs down from Begich.
"Alaska is known for our premium product because we are wild caught," he said. "Farmed fish could impact our natural stocks if improperly managed. I don't want any of that in Alaska, for sure."
Begich also is no fan of President Donald Trump's tariffs on seafood going to and from China, Alaska's biggest customer.
"This spat that the president has with China is costing Alaskans jobs and money and putting a damper on our products," he fumed. "With fisheries, if we're not careful it could add another $500 million to $700 million to the cost of our fish products sold to China. What they will do is decide to buy products from another place and once they do that, we'll lose our market share."
"We should be teaming up right now with the governors of Washington, Oregon and the Gulf states, working with the Trump administration and the state department and start pounding on them that this is hurting American jobs," he added. "These are dangerous games for us to be playing and the effects are long lasting."
Begich said as governor, he would reinstate the coastal zone management program, which would bring back Alaskans' ability to have input regarding management of our coastline. Alaska is the only state that does not have that outlet for the public's voice. A coastal zone management program in Alaska was in place starting in the 1970s but expired in 2011 when lawmakers and then-Gov. Sean Parnell failed to agree on its extension.
"We need to have that coastal zone management program. It is about our own sovereignty in deciding what we want to do, and to have public comments on our coastal zone versus the federal government controlling it," Begich said. "Secondly, it provides millions of dollars to the state that are rightfully ours and going to other states right now."
Other protein industries, such as beef and pork, use everything but the squeal. But in Alaska, most of the seafood trimmings end up as waste. Begich called that "shortsighted" and said he believes that there is tremendous economic potential for Alaska's billions of pounds of fish parts.
"We need to have the financing available to build the infrastructure that will allow these companies to do maximum utilization of their seafood," Begich said. "We also need to think about how we can use marketing in a way that helps utilize all of every product."
Mark Begich did not hesitate when asked what he views as the biggest threat to Alaska's fisheries.
"Climate change," he said. "Ocean acidification, warming waters — these are things that right now we don't have enough information about to understand what the long term impacts are going to be, and it is clear that there are going to be impacts."
"The state must put investment into research and better utilizing our university so we understand what we can do, if at all, to mitigate the impacts of climate change to our fisheries," Begich said, adding that the state also has its own goal to reach. "We have to get to our goal of 50 percent or greater of renewable energy so we can start doing our part in this world of making sure we put less emissions into the air."
"We have to do it to prepare and protect our environment, our industries and our economy," Begich said. "Secondly, we are the natural lab for a changing climate and we can become a leader in figuring out solutions to the challenges we face and show the rest of the world how to do it right."
Electronic monitoring sign-up
Nov. 1 is the deadline for pot cod and longline vessels fishing in federal waters to sign up for electronic monitoring of their catches for 2019. This year was the first time that the EM systems got the go ahead for use on boats under 60 feet; the program has now expanded to include more and larger boats.
"The cap for 2018 was 145 vessels. Since then, the North Pacific Fishery Management Council in June increased the number of vessels that can participate in the EM pool to 165," said Abby Turner-Franke, project coordinator at the North Pacific Fisheries Association in Homer, which has helped get the program out on the water.
Malcolm Milne, NPFA president, said the EM system is simple to use.
"Once your boat is wired, you get a camera, and instead of carrying a human observer, you just turn the cameras on and they record everything coming over the rails," he said. "When the set is done, the camera is off, and at the end of your trip you mail in the hard drive to be reviewed in Seattle. It took a trip or two to get used to the whole system, but after that, you don't even realize it's there at all."
In years of test trials, the EM cameras proved they could track and identify over 95 percent of the species required for fishery management decisions.
All costs are covered by grants from the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation. To opt in or out of the EM program for 2019, visit the Observer Declare and Deploy System (ODDS) website at odds.afsc.noaa.gov or call 1-855-747-6377 by Nov. 1.