Beth Kerttula returns to Juneau with message: Time to plan for ocean’s future

Former state Rep. Beth Kerttula served as the National Ocean Council director for two years. She said marine planning is important. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO - Juneau)
Former state Rep. Beth Kerttula served as the National Ocean Council director for two years. She said marine planning is important. (Photo by Andrew Kitchenman, KTOO – Juneau)

Former Juneau state Rep. Beth Kerttula returned to Alaska this summer after two years serving the White House as director of the National Ocean Council.

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In this position, she helped two regions write the country’s first marine plans and worked on some issues particularly important to Alaskans.

Kerttula said it’s important to plan for the future of the oceans that surround Alaska and the rest of the United States. She said just as people can have personal trauma when they don’t plan for their future, the U.S. oceans could face disaster.

“If you aren’t planning where your ship lanes are, if you’re not planning around the sea mammals, if you’re not planning so that you can have development, then you’re going to have a mess at some point,” Kerttula said. “And you’re going to have conflict between subsistence users, between the developers.”

The attraction of making a difference for the future of the oceans is why Kerttula left the Alaska House of Representatives in 2014, after 15 years.

The Juneau Democrat served as the minority leader for her last seven years in the House.

She spent six months at Stanford University’s Center for Ocean Solutions before she joined the National Ocean Council. President Barack Obama formed the council under an executive order in 2010. Kerttula explained why he did it.

“It’s a huge challenge right now with the ocean,” Kerttula said. “We’re facing some very severe problems: ocean acidification, erosion, sea-level rise, the lack of coordination among users, the lack of coordination among the federal agencies. And all of those things are really coming to a head.”

The National Ocean Council includes 27 federal agencies.

Kerttula worked with officials in all of the agencies to plan with state and tribal governments. The council adopted the first two marine plans on Dec. 2, covering the waters off of the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic.

She said planning is especially important for Alaska.

“We have so many conflicts,” she said. “And we have worse problems on the horizon, particularly in our ocean space. And this is just a really wonderful method to put all of the users, the stakeholders, the federal agencies, the tribes, at the table.”

Along with resolving conflicts, Kerttula said, the focus on planning can provide more information about coastal waters, such as mapping the seabed.

“We know so little about the ocean floor. We don’t even have charts,” Kerttula said. “I mean, in many parts of Alaska, we don’t have accurate charting. So it comes down also to health and safety.”

Kerttula was also engaged in efforts to stop illegally caught fish from being brought into the country.

“One of the things that was very shocking to me when I went Outside, spent so much time Outside these last two years, was the problem with illegal fish, I mean, not knowing what fish you were even getting many times in restaurants,” Kerttula said.

Kerttula ended her work at the end of June. Since Obama launched the National Ocean Council with an executive order, President-Elect Donald Trump will be able to end it with a stroke of a pen.

That has Kerttula worried.

“My hope is that there won’t be knee-jerk reactions about overturning the executive order,” Kerttula said. “But there’s a lot of concern about it, and about what that would mean. If that happens, the effort’s not going to stop, because you need something like this.”

She’s taking some time off now that she’s returned to Juneau, helping her husband, University of Alaska Southeast Professor Jim Powell, and her elderly father, former state Sen. Jay Kerttula.

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Andrew Kitchenman is the state government and politics reporter for Alaska Public Media and KTOO in Juneau. Reach him at akitchenman@alaskapublic.org.

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