Congressional Candidates Talk Fish in Kodiak

Alaska’s congressional candidates descended on Kodiak Wednesday night for a debate that pinned candidates running for both the House and Senate against their opponents on a number of fisheries-related issues.

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First to take the stage at the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium were the candidates for U.S. Senate.

Incumbent Senator Mark Begich squared off with Republican candidate Dan Sullivan, answering questions from a media panel, audience members and each other. One topic brought up was Russia’s recent ban on seafood imports from the U.S., and its potential impacts on Alaska’s seafood industry. When asked how he might handle an international issue like this, Sullivan cited his work with the Bush administration as useful experience.

“I served as an assistant secretary of state in the Bush administration. Part of my responsibilities were working to open markets for American goods throughout the world. So I have deep experience, not only working with the state department, where most of this would take place in terms of how we deal with these kind of issues, but also in terms of dealing with sanctions. And the big problem right now with Russia is with sanctions,” Sullivan. “So to me it’s very important to make sure that we go to the state department, we go to the Obama administration and make sure that when we place sanctions on countries, or threaten sanctions, that in many ways we’re not shooting ourselves in the foot by having retaliation that hurts our markets.”

Begich addressed the state’s aging commercial fisheries fleet and how to promote better access for the next generation of young fishermen. He said the cost of entering the industry is very expensive and more needs to be done to help with those costs.

“One thing we should do and consider and I know the state of Alaska has looked at it and we should participate where we can is having a cost-effective loan program so people can afford to borrow if they want to get into the business. Second, there’s been conversation which I think I’m very intrigued about – the Magnuson Stevens Act offers it, it’s never been used – how you do community shares. Community shares are an opportunity where you can engage maybe at a lower cost – engage that first time, as I like to call it, first time home owner,” Begich said. “You know, first time fishermen. To get their feet wet, literally, and be able to do some fishing and understand the business. But you have to have a certain amount of shares available. This concept that now the council is discussing, I’m very intrigued about.”

During the second half of the debates, the candidates for U.S. House took the stage to try their hand at fisheries issues. Incumbent Republican Congressman Don Young was asked whether or not he felt current regulations and environmental cleanup operations in place were sufficient to handle possible environmental damage caused by increased shipping traffic and oil exploration in the Arctic.

“You know again I grew up in Cordova and our issue when I was first going out fishing farmed fish was flooding the market and the price had crashed and people weren’t able to distinguish – and they still have trouble distinguishing between farmed salmon from Norway or Canada or from fresh Alaskan salmon,” Dunbar said. “That’s wrong. They have an inferior product. We have a superior product and it should be labeled as such. Now with regard to Pollock, right now Russians are importing their Pollock calling it Alaskan Pollock. It’s twice frozen; it’s an inferior product; it should be labeled. Now you’re also talking about cooked seafood, I understand that, I support labeling, I support pushing the FDA to strongly label things that say where they’re from. Not just the country but also the region.”

Young was asked his opinion on seafood labeling, and he was quick to express his support of country of origin labeling and an overall strengthening of all seafood labels.

“They’re not sufficient. This is one of our problems. I’m, with Mr. Larsen from Washington State, a congressman, bipartisan, we’re setting up an Arctic Commission,” Young said. “We’ve worked to try to get the Coast Guard established in the Arctic and I’m trying to get new ice breakers. When I say I’m trying, it’s about $1.4 billion to build one. And I don’t see the appetite for that much money. In fact it hasn’t even been asked for. So I’m trying to get them to lease the vessels, maintain the vessels by the leaser and have an ice breaker available with oil recovery equipment.”

All four candidates will be on the November 4 general election ballot.