Begich hooks chairmanship

Posted: Tuesday, March 01, 2011

"Bashful" is likely the last word his U.S. Senate colleagues would use to describe Mark Begich.

So when an opportunity arose to become chairman of the Oceans, Atmosphere, Fisheries and Coast Guard Subcommittee, the junior senator from Alaska was not shy about talking his way into the seat.

"A lot of negotiations went on," Begich said. "Two other senators, who weren't on that subcommittee, would have been in line for that based on seniority, but we worked that out."

Sen. Maria Cantwell, D-Wash., the former chair of the subcommittee, has moved on to chair the Aviation Operations, Safety and Security Subcommittee. Both are part of the Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee.

The subcommittee, where the late Ted Stevens once sat while crafting federal fisheries policy through the Magnuson-Stevens Act, or MSA, is vital to Alaska interests. The state produces half the national seafood harvest and is home to the largest U.S. Coast Guard base in Kodiak.

Addressing Coast Guard needs in northern Alaska will be an early priority for Begich, but the first two hearings he is working to schedule will be on updates and issues related to the MSA and on the budget for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

Begich said he intends to vigorously exercise oversight as a subcommittee chairman, and he did not sound enthusiastic about two NOAA funding requests totaling nearly $100 million.

NOAA has requested $54 million to encourage the implementation of catch share fishery management programs around the country, and another $40 million to begin implementing "marine spatial planning," or, as the former Anchorage mayor Begich calls it, "ocean zoning."

The House of Representatives stripped the $54 million for catch shares when it passed a continuing resolution Feb. 18 to fund government through the rest of fiscal year 2011.

Begich compared the $40 million request for ocean zoning to the $20 million for all of Alaska federal fishery management, and sounded much more sympathetic to a request from the North Pacific Fishery Management Council for about $3.1 million to fund start-up costs for the expanded observer program approved last October.

Begich said he's sent a strong letter to the administration stating that while ocean zoning, "may have merit to some people, I think there's enough issues around it, and it's a new program, we don't need to do it."

The expanded observer program will provide greater understanding of fishing behavior and provide better data to inform management decisions by assigning observers to vessels less than 60 feet long not currently required to carry them.

As it stands now, that $3.1 million is set to come out of fishermen's pockets through fees in 2012 to fund the program in its first year of 2013.

"I'm looking to make sure NOAA has adequate funding," he said, "and that we're not adding on these new things that don't have stakeholder commitment yet, and have not been proven to be high value compared to their core services."

Begich said he's heard constituent concerns about recent regulations related to the charter halibut industry approved by the North Pacific council that resulted in hundreds of permit denials. Begich stressed that the subcommittee role is not to "circumvent or supplant" the council role, but hearings to examine how the program is working after implementation would be appropriate.

"What the committee can do in that first year is oversight with seeing what has been the impact, has it been what people thought, are there things that need to be changed?" he said. "That was my biggest complaint about ocean zoning. There was nothing about economic impacts."

Sen. Scott Brown, R-Mass., also a member of the Oceans subcommittee, has introduced an amendment to the MSA requiring an annual economic impact analysis of all federal fishery management plans. Brown's amendment is related to the bitter fight being waged over New England fishery management after the controversial introduction of catch share allocations among sectors.

Along with Brown and Oceans subcommittee ranking member Sen. Olympia Snowe, R-Maine, a wide coalition of Democrats, including Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, a close friend of Obama, Rep. Barney Frank, Sen. Chuck Schumer, Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand, Sen. John Kerry and Rep. Peter DeFazio, have repeatedly petitioned Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and NOAA Administrator Jane Lubchenco for emergency measures to increase catch quotas.

NOAA enforcement in New England is also embroiled in a scandal recently featured on "60 Minutes" with alleged abusive and arbitrary fines collected from fishermen and used for cars, a luxury boat and swank trips around the world capped by a "shredding party" led by one of the top NOAA enforcement officers.

The lack of a response to close Obama allies Patrick and Frank in particular to requests for emergency measures has infuriated New England Democrats, and Begich said he would facilitate meaningful oversight of NOAA's New England fishery management via his chairmanship.

Begich said he may even take the unusual step of inviting the New England House delegation for a joint hearing to grill Commerce and NOAA officials.

"First off, I have no problem dragging the administration in front of the committee and laying it down to them," Begich said. "Let's put them on the spot and see where we can get here. But you've got to use that committee oversight. Instead of having a hearing, we shake hands, thanks, and nothing happens -- 'we're going to get some action here, and if not, here's what we're going to do.' I'm not going to be bashful about that."

After nearly a decade of one-party rule under either Republicans or Democrats, Begich said Congress has neglected its oversight role.

"Congress in general has not utilized the committee structures to do the oversight of agencies they have jurisdiction on, so I intend to utilize it," he said. "And not just for hearings on topics, but real oversight. Are you doing your job? Are you performing your core function? Are you spending the money we give you in the right ways based on your mission and core services?"

Begich said he's already talked about the "Alaska experience" to Snowe and said the state's sustainable fisheries are a model for other regional management councils.

"The committee gives us an opportunity from a parochial viewpoint to highlight Alaska in these areas, but to also go develop an industry that is American as it gets," he said. "We take a raw product from the ocean and sell it around the world. That's not a bad deal."

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