Politics

Rep. Peltola’s ‘pro-fish’ positions are put to the test in Kodiak candidate forum

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U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola’s “pro-fish” message was met with scrutiny at a candidate forum in Kodiak on Tuesday that focused on the commercial fishing industry.

Peltola was sworn in to the U.S. House last month after winning a special election to serve out the rest of the late Rep. Don Young’s term. Peltola, a Democrat, now faces another election against Republicans Nick Begich III and former Gov. Sarah Palin, along with Libertarian Chris Bye, to determine who will hold Alaska’s lone U.S. House seat for the two-year term that begins in January.

Peltola’s “pro-fish” campaign has garnered national attention. She has made fisheries one of the issues she focused on during her two weeks in Congress before the House recessed until the November election. But in Kodiak — one of the few Alaska communities that depends on year-round commercial fishing — some were skeptical of her positions and whether they would be beneficial to the industry.

“I think there’s a whole suite of people that don’t consider her pro-fish. She’s pro-subsistence and not really pro-commercial fishing,” said Julie Bonney, executive director of the Alaska Groundfish Data Bank based in Kodiak. “I don’t see her as pro-fish at all.”

Peltola grew up commercial fishing on the Kuskokwim River, where salmon stocks have collapsed in recent years. She pins that collapse partially on bycatch — fish that are harvested but are not sold or kept — by trawlers. Many trawlers that fish in Alaska waters are not based in the state, but some are based in Kodiak.

The U.S. House & U.S. Senate Fishery Debates

On Tuesday, October 4th, the focus will turn to federal issues, with candidates Nick Begich, Chris Bye, Sarah Palin, and US House Representative Mary Peltola debating at 6:30 PM. This will be followed by US Senate candidates Pat Chesbro and Senator Lisa Murkowski.

Posted by Kodiak Chamber of Commerce on Tuesday, October 4, 2022

The four candidates’ personal experience with fisheries reflected the topic’s importance to the state. Palin spoke about setnetting in Bristol Bay; Bye is a sportfish guide who lives in Fairbanks; and Begich — a businessman and grandson of the U.S. House member who represented Alaska before Young — was the only candidate on stage whose livelihood had not at any point depended at least in part on Alaska fish.

“My personal perspective is I want all of our fisheries to prosper. I want abundant stocks. I don’t want to see any Alaska communities suffer,” Peltola said. But Kodiak fishermen say that protecting one fishery or user group can come at the expense of others.

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“It’s a national sport here in Kodiak — this fish fight. And you can’t come clean out of a fish fight,” said Mike Milligan, a longtime Kodiak resident who ran in the special U.S. House race as a Democrat.

[Alaska’s 2022 election: Compare the candidates for governor, U.S. Senate and U.S. House]

In Congress, one of Peltola’s first actions was advancing the Magnuson-Stevens reauthorization bill out of the House Natural Resources Committee, of which she is now a member. That bill would update how federally governed fisheries are managed, something Peltola says is needed given salmon stock declines driven by climate change and bycatch, among other issues.

“When I was growing up, abundance was kind of an understatement. When I was using the outboard to get to our fishing spot, you couldn’t help but hit salmon with your lower unit on the way to the fishing hole,” she said. “Well, that is not the story now.”

But the bill as it is currently written is opposed by some Alaska fishermen. Bonney was one of several Alaskan signatories on a letter written last month opposing the bill. The letter criticizes changes to language on bycatch that could, according to the letter, “very well lead to managers or the courts shutting down fisheries where bycatch cannot be eliminated.”

While Palin thanked Peltola for her work so far on the House Natural Resources Committee, Begich used the Kodiak forum to question the Magnuson-Stevens Act reauthorization bill and Peltola’s support for it.

“The fact that this is being led by a California congressman and this is his version of a vision for coastal Alaska does not sit well with me,” Begich said, referring to Democratic U.S. Rep. Jared Huffman, the lead sponsor of the bill.

[Walker and Gara again question Dunleavy’s absence at Kodiak fisheries debate]

Begich criticized a change to the bill introduced by Peltola that would add two seats to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council reserved for Alaska tribal members.

Peltola said that in advancing the bill, she is “carrying forward” the legacy of her Republican predecessor, who died in March while negotiations on the language of the bill were ongoing in the Natural Resources Committee.

“The last time I spoke with Don directly was in November of 2021 and it was about the two extra seats on the council for Alaska Natives. He was in strong support of that,” Peltola said. “The reason that this effort came about is because the process of working with the council works well for the biggest, the wealthiest and the most connected amongst us, but if you don’t happen to be big and wealthy and connected, it is very hard to get any inroads in the council process.”

Peltola also said she was committed to working across the aisle on the bill with Alaska’s Republican U.S. senators, Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, as the measure moved through the legislative process.

With just over a month to go before Election Day, recent polling shows Peltola has an advantage statewide over her Republican challengers.

At the forum, Begich, Palin and Bye all accused federal fishery managers of overreaching their authority. For the Republican candidates, it was an echo of their accusations in other realms, including oil and gas development, where they say the administration of President Joe Biden has stood in the way of new drilling projects.

“When we see the Biden administration moving in every direction that they can to lock up as many of the resources of this nation as they can — it’s a threat to our way of life and Alaska, not just for fisheries but across the industries in our resource-based state,” Begich said.

“Yes, they’re obligated to protect our federal waters. That’s their job. However, they do not allow enough local input when it comes to fisheries that are closer to home,” said Palin. “The federal government needs to get off our back. It needs to get back on our side and allow Alaska primacy, the access to our resources.”

Peltola — who has tried to position herself as a moderate even as she has enjoyed briefly being a member of the Democratic majority in the U.S. House — expressed more openness to working with the Biden administration on federal resource management.

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“If we are not at the table, we are on the menu,” she said. “Just saying no gets us shut out of the conversation, and without an Alaska representative who’s willing to engage in these conversations, things are going to be happening to us and not with us or for us.”

Despite some reservations from commercial fishermen, Peltola’s eagerness to address fishery issues won over some in the crowd of over 100 that gathered in Kodiak to hear the four candidates.

Dan Ogg, a commercial salmon fisherman from Kodiak who also served as a Republican in the state House with Peltola, said that after listening to the forum, he had decided to support her.

“She’s not a hatchet person going down one avenue. She’ll listen, she’ll work with other people,” Ogg said. “So I don’t think it’s something that the trawl fisheries should be that worried about.”

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Iris Samuels

Iris Samuels is a reporter for the Anchorage Daily News focusing on state politics. She previously covered Montana for The Associated Press and wrote for the Kodiak Daily Mirror. Contact her at isamuels@adn.com.

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