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Policy decisions of Alaska Chamber of Commerce draw criticism from coastal members

The Alaska Chamber of Commerce touts itself as “the voice of Alaska business,” but seafood industry and coastal community members are largely left out of the conversation. The Chamber isn’t entirely at fault; it appears that most of those members are not speaking up.

Three cases in point.

In February the Chamber was one of the first to “applaud Gov. Dunleavy for proposing a spending plan that matches current revenues.”

In April the Chamber testified in support of the Pebble mine draft environmental impact statement “in the name of due process.” (The Pebble Partnership is a Chamber member.)

The Chamber’s top federal priority is to “support oil and gas exploration and development in Alaska’s federal areas including the Outer Continental Shelf, National Petroleum Reserve-Alaska, Cook Inlet, and the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge.”

But just about every Alaska coastal community strongly opposed the Dunleavy budget; likewise, they spoke out strongly against the Trump Administration’s plans for oil/gas development in Alaska’s offshore waters, and nearly all fishing interests have protested what they perceive as sloppy and biased science in the Pebble DEIS.

In a canvassing of nearly 25 coastal chamber members and trade groups, not one said they were aware of those policy positions nor were they queried (including at Bristol Bay).

“No, we were not contacted, period,” said Clay Koplin, Cordova mayor and Chamber member. “We disagree with the state chamber’s executive committee or whoever formulated that. Granted, we seldom attend meetings,” he added. Ditto Kodiak Chamber executive director Sarah Phillips.

“Our current membership with the Alaska Chamber of Commerce does not reflect agreement or alignment on political issues,” Phillips said.

“I find it very unsettling,” said a spokesman for the Aleutian Pribilof Island Community Development Association, which represents six remote communities.

“We were not contacted by the Chamber regarding the formation of its legislative priorities and policy positions,” said Doug Griffin, executive director of the Southwest Alaska Municipal League (SWAMC), which serves the Aleutian/Pribilofs, Bristol Bay and Kodiak.

“SWAMC is not a very active member and I have not attended any annual meetings. I do not think we would have much impact, but perhaps we could at least provide a dissent on some of its positions. I think many of the Chamber’s positions are misguided,” he added.

“No contact” also was the response of Chamber members Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, United Fishermen of Alaska, Pacific Seafood Processors Association and At-Sea Processors Association, which commented that “we do get minutes and position papers regularly with opportunity to provide input.”

Alaska Chamber CEO and executive director Kati Capozzi was surprised at the responses and said the way in which positions and priorities are determined is “quite possibly the most democratic, egalitarian process of any statewide association that I’m aware of.”

Every year an email goes out to all members in good standing advising them that the process is open and “it is the opportunity to have your voice heard,” she explained. Each fall, members gather at a policy forum to propose positions for the upcoming year. Based on submitted proposals, Chamber members adopt positions on issues that impact Alaska's economy and the board of directors select the top state and federal priorities.

“Every position makes it to our membership at our policy forum,” Capozzi added. “You must be present to vote, but that’s when any member can vote to adopt a position or not. No matter how big or small a business is, it’s one member, one vote. Then we notify all members afterward and tell them what we will be championing for the next year. It’s really a unique process that helps us have a lot of credibility as we move to advocate for the positions that our membership has voted on.”

For actions that fall outside of the autumn voting time frame (such as the governor’s February budget debut and the window for commenting on the Pebble DEIS), Capozzi said, the adopted positions provide a “blueprint that serves as my guiding light for the next year.”

“Our February press release applauding the budget directly related to our top state priority to support reduction of spending to sustainable levels. We did not and will not come out in support or opposition to the Pebble Project but we are constant advocates for due process,” she explained, adding that “I think that the positions that we come up with are very representative of the overall business community concerns. I don’t know how we can be more inclusive with our process, but a good point is being more communicative with the statements and positions we do come out with.”

The Alaska Chamber claims it has “700+ members representing 100,000 employees and 30+ local chambers.” Associations, nonprofits and businesses with annual gross revenues under $1 million pay a $500 annual membership fee; others pay from $800 to $7,200 based on gross revenues.

The seafood industry represents only about 1% of the membership and Capozzi said she would “love, love to see that number grow.”

“I have strong relationships within that community and I hope to get as many of those friends in the industry more involved because the more involvement we have from the business community, the more diverse and better off our positions will be. I believe that firmly,” she added.

Chamber members can submit their positions and priorities preferences through Sept. 6. The fall meeting, where attendees will vote, is set for Oct. 28-30 in Girdwood.

Best fish messages

Alaska’s seafood marketing messages are resonating with consumers, and it’s helping to home in on how to persuade them to buy and eat more.

“What we know now is that the consumer not only wants a product that is good for them, but good for the planet,” said Michael Kohan, technical program director for the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

ASMI pinned down that message from a Technomics Foodservice research survey that revealed that 35 percent of consumers are eating more seafood.

“When we asked those consumers why, they actually identified aspects of Alaska’s seafood aspects or attributes found in our tag lines - wild, natural and sustainable,” she said at an Accelerate Alaska conference.

“Wild” resonates in terms of quality, and “natural” was seen in Alaska’s pristine environment. Consumers said they want to be able to choose a pure source of protein as part of a healthier diet.

“Sustainable” definitions vary by person and region, Kohan said, but origins and jobs are highly valued.

“The U.S. consumers thought knowing where seafood comes from was important as well as by purchasing seafood they were supporting American jobs,” she said.

Kohan added that ASMI believes the already winning “wild, natural and good for the planet messages” give Alaska seafood an advantage in world markets. They will build on the quality, nutrition and sustainability themes and “personalize” outreach by telling people why Alaska seafood is good for them and what body parts get the most benefit.

She said that ASMI is becoming more involved in research that applies Alaska seafood to nutrition and healing.

“For instance, ASMI is working with the industry to understand if omega 3 content found from DHA and EPA fatty acids in Alaska wild salmon is important or can affect the pain that is triggered by inflammation for breast cancer survivors,” Kohan said.

ASMI also is striving to make full utilization of seafood a part of Alaska’s sustainability message by expanding markets for fish “specialty” products to pet food, nutraceutical and medical industries.