During his third stop in a series of meetings on the re-authorization of the federal marine fisheries management act, U.S. Senator Mark Begich, D-Alaska, spoke about Alaskans being unified in their approach when negotiating at the federal level.
Nearly 30 people attended the third of Begich’s listening sessions in Kenai; He has also held meetings with the subsistence community in Fairbanks and commercial fishermen in Kodiak.
The sessions revolve around the re-authorization of the Magnuson-Stevens act, a federal law that covers marine fisheries in the U.S. and is now being reworked for the first time in nearly a decade.
The senator, who chairs the Senate Subcommittee on Oceans, Atmosphere and Fisheries and is spearheading the re-authorization, has seen several of the same issues surface during his tours of Alaskan communities including by-catch, changes in ocean temperature; however Cook Inlet fishermen also emphasized the importance of genetic testing and the expense of having observers on commercial fishing vessels.
“We’re now in a position where we can announce, 36 hours after a commercial opening, what happened; what we have harvested,” said Paul Dale, a representative from the Alaska Salmon Alliance. “We’re able to use that information to make better management decisions in time to really help us all.”
Dale told the senator and audience members that his group wanted to see an end to Alaska’s “Salmon Wars.”
“We think no one really ends in one of these ultimately,” Dale said. “It’s just an invitation to come back to the ring again and again and again. We are really keenly interested in working together with all user groups to work together in a cooperative, collaborative fashion and try to put some of these long-standing problems to rest.”
Dale said the observer program in the state, which pairs observers with commercial fishing vessels to verify catches, also seemed to be getting out of hand.
“From a commercial fish point of view ... we’re seeing a push for observers on smaller and smaller vessels,” he said. “It’s a terrifically expensive way to verify what’s going on, on that vessel. Canada, I think, has really pioneered and fleshed out video camera monitoring of what’s going on, on board. It’s reliable, it’s expensive, but it’s much less expensive than a body on a bunk.”
With a nod to allocation of fish harvest issues that have been magnified in recent years in the Cook Inlet, Dale said he hoped the re-authorization process would include attention to allocation.
“From my perspective over the years, I recognize allocation will happen. I might not be happy with it, I might not think it’s the best mix of percentages,” Dale said. “What isn’t O.K. is when we implement allocation in such a way that it needlessly bruises, needlessly harms other users in the fishery and I’m hoping we can all agree that there should be some emphasis on implementing allocation methods in a way that’s least damaging to all user groups that are involved.”
Tom Payton, a member of the Mt. Yenlo Fish and Game advisory committee in the Matanuska-Susitna area, said he was concerned that Alaskans could be underrepresented on the federal level.
“What I could see happen,” he said to Begich. “You go back to Washington D.C. in these hearings, we’re going to have some heavyweight lobbyists back there and how many of us Alaskans from the Yukon or Unalakleet... how are we going to get some equal representation?”
Begich said Payton’s concerns were similar to the reasons he joined the senate subcommittee he currently chairs.
“Alaska has the best representation sitting at the front of the table,” Begich said. “That is why ... literally I worked to jump over two senators to get this position. I did a lot of negotiation because I knew when this day came, it was going to be critical that Alaska be sitting at the head of that.”
Ultimately, Begich said Alaskans and their voices would hold more sway than lobbyists in Washington D.C.
“You can pile up all the lobbyists you want but at the end of the day —and that’s why I’m doing this here — it’s the folks who live in this state and care about this issue; from subsistence, to commercial to sports, rec, whatever this might be. That’s the most important aspect of this.”
Rashah McChesney can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org