Alaska News

As debate approaches, Sullivan swims upstream to challenge Begich on fisheries

The difference in reception for the two U.S. Senate candidates was stark.

The Republican, Dan Sullivan, got 45 minutes Friday morning to make his pitch to the United Fishermen of Alaska's board of directors in a dimly lit hotel conference room in Anchorage -- a pitch that at best would draw just a few votes away from his opponent, incumbent Democratic U.S. Sen. Mark Begich, whom the group had endorsed months earlier.

Begich, by contrast, was invited to give the keynote address Friday night at the UFA's glitzy 40th anniversary banquet, where he presented a fish-centric stump speech and described how he'd gone to bat for attendees by fighting against genetically modified salmon and illegal fishing in Alaska waters.

As the two candidates prepare for a debate Wednesday in Kodiak over fisheries, Begich is counting on strong support from the multibillion-dollar industry, which employs more than 30,000 people statewide.

He chairs a key Senate committee charged with shepherding legislation through Congress that's critical to the fishing industry, joins fishermen in opposing the Pebble mine project in Southwest Alaska, and boasts the endorsement of several trade groups, like the UFA, the Bering Sea Crabbers, and even the Purse Seine Vessel Owners Association.

Sullivan, meanwhile, has been attacked by Begich's allies for originally saying he would skip Wednesday's fish debate, with a recent radio ad claiming the Republican "just washed up here" and doesn't value the fishing industry. But Sullivan is now trying to fight back, enlisting the help of Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski and traveling with her to Kodiak early in an attempt to shore up his support among fishermen.

His work, however, is cut out for him, said Laine Welch, a longtime fisheries journalist based in Kodiak. Even Republicans in the seafood industry recognize that Begich has fought for them, and many are saying, "I'm going to hold my nose and vote for him," Welch said.


"I think people just believe Sullivan has a very, very different agenda, and the seafood industry does not seem to factor into that," Welch added. "And that's what I hear over and over and over again."

In a brief phone interview from Kodiak on Tuesday, Sullivan conceded fisheries were not a "core responsibility" of his when he served as the Alaska's natural resources commissioner -- the job he held before announcing his candidacy last year.

But he pointed out his own "personal connection" to fisheries, noting that the family of his wife -- Julie Fate Sullivan, whose mother is a prominent Athabaskan leader -- has fished on the Yukon River for "generations."

Asked what his pitch is to people in the fishing industry, Sullivan paused, then answered: "I listen."

"Look, I recognize one of the biggest things that the fishing community is struggling with is that most of them are small businesses -- and they struggle with the burdensome federal regulations that are part of some of the very big challenges that they have," he added. "And I recognize how important this community is to the state."

Begich's support among fishermen and industry groups, however, will be tough for Sullivan to wrest away, thanks to Begich's positions on issues and his standing in Congress.

Begich opposes the Pebble mine, for example -- a project feared by fishermen for its potential to destroy habitat in the Bristol Bay region, where there's a lucrative salmon run.

He's clear in his recognition of the threats fisheries face from climate change and the parallel phenomenon of ocean acidification, which imperils shellfish like crab, as well as salmon, which eat small shell-bearing creatures call pteropods. And he's pushed for federal funding for ocean monitoring, and for projects to help mitigate the effects of coastal erosion.

"Trying to bring that into every conversation in the U.S. Senate is crucial," Begich said in an interview Monday. "Alaska is ground zero."

Begich also touts his chairmanship of the Senate's subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries and the Coast Guard -- a chairmanship he cited repeatedly in a luncheon speech Monday to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute.

The subcommittee has jurisdiction over legislation with significant effects on fisheries, including the Magnuson-Stevens Act -- which was one of the reasons Begich drew the support of UFA members, said Jerry McCune, the president of the group.

"We've got some hot federal issues," said McCune, a Democratic candidate for the Alaska Legislature. "I'm not convinced there should be a change right now -- let's put it that way."

Sullivan's opponents have claimed the Republican candidate's priorities lie in other areas, and that he would request assignments on committees without authority over fisheries. But a spokesman for Sullivan, Mike Anderson, said Sullivan would be "committed" to serving on the Senate's commerce committee, which includes the oceans subcommittee.

While Sullivan has been cautious in his comments about climate change, he does support spending money on research and monitoring of ocean acidification, Anderson added.

And when it comes to the Pebble mine, Sullivan stressed that he's never expressed support for the mine itself, but rather wants to see a "transparent process" followed when it comes to the government's approval or rejection of all projects.

To protect salmon near Pebble, the federal Environmental Protection Agency has proposed restrictions on impacts in the area of the mine, before owners of the prospect submitted a development plan -- an action that fishermen have applauded, though it has drawn strong objections from boosters of natural resource extraction.

"I've never taken a position on Pebble as a project," Sullivan said. "But I've consistently stood for a fair process that I would advocate for all industries and projects in the state of Alaska."


Asked about other policy questions on which he differs from Begich, Sullivan said he would describe those in Wednesday's debate. He also refused to reveal whom he'd relied on for consultations on fisheries issues beyond saying that it was a "very broad cross-section of experts across the state."

Begich's fish policy adviser is Bob King, a fisheries historian who was once the press secretary for Gov. Tony Knowles.

Sullivan's position as the fisheries underdog in this year's election is somewhat akin to where Begich stood in 2008, when he was running against Republican Sen. Ted Stevens -- whose last name is affixed on the primary law governing fishing in federal waters, the Magnuson-Stevens Act.

Stevens had broad support from the fishing and seafood industry in that election -- though that support has now shifted to Begich.

Endorsements from groups like the UFA may not come with big ad spending or a huge volunteer get-out-the-vote network. But, Begich said, the backing serves as a signal to the tens of thousands of people in Alaska who have ties to the industry.

"It sends a message that what I've done, they've appreciated, and what I will do, they look forward to," Begich said. Fishermen, he added, "lean a little bit Republican, and so they're not a natural constituency of a Democrat."

Nathaniel Herz

Nathaniel Herz is an Anchorage-based journalist. He’s been a reporter in Alaska for nearly a decade, with stints at the Anchorage Daily News and Alaska Public Media. Read his newsletter, Northern Journal, at