Alaska News

Laine Welch: Fish at the forefront in Kodiak debate

I must admit that U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan achieved something I have been trying to accomplish as a fisheries writer for more than a quarter of a century: He gave long legs to media stories about Alaska's fisheries and, more important, it attracted unparalleled recognition of the seafood industry nationwide.

How did that come about for a fractious industry that bemoans -- a la comedian Rodney Dangerfield -- "I don't get no respect"?

When Sullivan's campaign announced that he would not attend a traditional Kodiak fisheries debate scheduled with all U.S. Senate candidates in late May, he said it was due to a military obligation. Then, after winning the August primary, and despite months of advance notice, Sullivan's campaign abruptly brushed off a fisheries face-off against incumbent Sen. Mark Begich set for Oct. 1. Dan had no other commitment, his manager said; his travel schedule was just "too busy."

The fish gurry immediately hit the fan. Press releases from opposing factions started flying; newspaper, radio, TV and blog headlines screamed that Sullivan dissed Alaska's largest workforce and simply didn't give a crappie. The story even outran the 24-hour news cycle and for weeks it stayed in the news and on people's minds. (Still is.)

Enter Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Word quickly spread on the fish vine that she advised Dan that a no-show was a really bad move and to reconsider. He did, and Murkowski, who can talk fish with the best of them, schooled him for two weeks in a total-immersion kind of way. Sen. Lisa even accompanied Sullivan to Kodiak a day before the fisheries debate to make an even bigger splash.

It paid off fairly well. Dan held his own against Begich, who is a passionate fisheries whiz, as well as chairman of the U.S. Senate subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and U.S. Coast Guard.

It was a first opportunity for Alaskans to hear Dan Sullivan's ideas and opinions on fishery-related issues. As a result, he fielded the most questions from the media panelists, along with hardballs from Begich.


No one could pin Dan down on his position on the Pebble mine. Claiming that he "has never come out in support of the mine," he resorted to the tiresome talking points of "not trading one resource for another" and "supporting the process." Begich has come out strongly against the proposed mine, and echoed the words of the late Sen. Ted Stevens that Pebble is "the wrong mine in the wrong place."

Begich pressed Sullivan to answer yes or no on his support of oil and gas exploration leases set to become available in federal waters off Bristol Bay in 2017, an area dubbed "the nation's fish basket."

"I'd look at the science and see what the federal agencies are doing to balance resource opportunities in the state. When I see the science and the recommendations, I would make the decisions," Sullivan responded.

"These leases have happened before and we bought them out based on the science," retorted Begich, who opposes the idea.

When asked by Begich if he acknowledges climate change, Sullivan said, "Yes, but as for the causes, the science is still out. I would not be for a one-size-fits-all solution. We've got to get the science right before we take some big action that will further limit or hurt our fisheries."

The Kodiak fisheries debate, which is always broadcast statewide, was also covered by Japan Broadcasting Corp., C-Span, National Public Radio, Associated Press, KTUU, KTVA and Alaska Dispatch News.

House raucous

Following U.S. Senate candidates Begich and Sullivan to the fish debate stage were Alaska Congressman Don Young and Democratic challenger Forrest Dunbar. It was the first time the two candidates had met face to face, and Dunbar was clearly prepared to take on the 42-year House of Representatives veteran.

Young set an argumentative tone by quibbling over debate protocols, referring to 30-year-old Dunbar as "naive" and "immature," and often glaring at and interrupting moderator John Whiddon, a decorated retired USCG helicopter pilot who has pulled off some of the hairiest rescues on record in the Bering Sea. (He didn't bat an eye.)

The audience gasped when Young glibly announced that he had not bothered to prepare any questions for Dunbar as part of the debate format. But it did not take him long to get serious once he realized how well-prepared, knowledgeable and articulate his opponent is on Alaska's fisheries.

Young and Dunbar agreed on many issues, such as the need to make sure fishing futures exist for young Alaskans, and the need to reduce chinook and halibut bycatch by trawlers.

"The Gulf is where most of the problem lies, not the Bering Sea," Young pointed out. "It can be done with excluder panels and modern technology. If they don't clean up and do it better, someone else will do it for them."

Likewise, they saw mostly eye to eye on: the need for better seafood labeling, stopping fishing pirates on the high seas, opposing genetically modified fish and offshore fish farming, homeporting more vessels in Alaska and increasing resident and corporate involvement, and that ocean "assification" (Young's term) is a threat to Alaska's fisheries.

Dunbar is strongly opposed to the Pebble mine, whereas Young said: "It is the state's land and it has control over the resources. Let the state do its job."

No one can discount Young's knowledge of and caring for Alaska's seafood industry. He helped write and pass laws in the 1970s that "Americanized" our nation's fisheries by booting foreign fleets to beyond 200 miles from U.S. shores. He also is credited with pushing through an international ban on the use of miles of driftnets on the high seas.

But his condescension of Dunbar did not reflect well on Alaska's lone congressman.

"Why do you think in your young years that you can better represent Alaska?" Young asked his competitor. Dunbar, who is from Eagle and Cordova and has a Yale law degree, responded that he was an intern in D.C. for Sen. Frank Murkowski and another legislator.

"I have more experience than you did when you went to D.C. And I grew up in this state and represent Alaska values," Dunbar said.


"Sounds good, looks good but it doesn't quite pass the smell test," Young retorted. "You are a very ambitious young man but you don't know the ropes. What I have done is represent and fight for all Alaskans every day."

When Dunbar questioned Young about past ethics violations and referred to his "lack of clout" in Congress, Young upbraided him, saying: "Right now you are a young man all fired up and wanting to make an impression. Attacking a congressman for 42 years is wrong and demeans the office. You ought to be ashamed of yourself."

Fish watch

Many Alaskans are surprised to learn that salmon fishing goes on in Southeast Alaska almost year-round. Trollers there are heading back out for winter king salmon on Saturday in a season that can run all the way through April.

Southeast's pot shrimp season opened Wednesday with a region-wide harvest of about half a million pounds. Crabbers also began dropping pots that day for the fall Dungeness fishery. The total Dungie catch this year could top 6 million pounds. Dive fisheries for sea cucumber and urchins also got underway Wednesday in Southeast and Kodiak.

A little over 1 million pounds remain for Alaska's halibut fleet out of a nearly 15 million-pound catch limit. Prices at major ports remained in the high $6 and over $7 range for fishermen. Weekly landings have been less than 500,000 pounds over the past month. Sablefish prices also are through the ceiling, topping $4.25 for under 3-pounders and $7.55 for 7-ups.

The Alaska pollock fishery wrapped up nearly a month early in the Bering Sea. At nearly 3 billion pounds, that's a lot of fish sticks.! Fleets are also targeting cod, flatfish and many other types of groundfish.

In the Central and Western Gulf, trawl, hook and line, pot boats and jig boats are targeting P-cod. Gulf trawlers also are back out on the water for the final pollock fishery of the year.

The Aleutian Islands golden king crab fleet is tapping away at its 6 million-pound quota. Catches for Bristol Bay red king crab and Bering Sea snow crab should be out any day.


Laine Welch is a Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at

The views expressed here are the writer's own and are not necessarily endorsed by Alaska Dispatch News, which welcomes a broad range of viewpoints. To submit a piece for consideration, e-mail

Laine Welch

Laine Welch is an independent Kodiak-based fisheries journalist. Contact her at