Fairbanks Daily News-Miner: Local and state representatives weigh in on fisheries and other issues at virtual ComFish

Kodiak’s representatives at the state and federal levels Zoomed into ComFish on Sept. 18 and 19 to tout their work on fishing and other coastal issues.

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan, U.S. Rep. Don Young, state Rep. Louise Stutes and state Sen. Gary Stevens all spoke virtually via Zoom at the event.

The federal delegation spoke on Friday.  

Sullivan touched on his work focusing COVID-19 relief on the fishing industry, as well as his efforts to push for the inclusion of seafood in more trade agreements.

He said the Alaska delegation has helped secure a surge in testing at seafood processing centers and on fishing vessels, as well as in targeted relief for the industry.

Sullivan also talked about his work on trade and fishing. He recently helped get $530 million in relief from retaliatory tariffs from the U.S. Department of Agriculture directed to fisheries, which was announced recently.

“We’re going to have to work together to get it implemented well, but we think that was a really important, historic development that just happened,” he said.

He’s also worked over the past years to make seafood a bigger part of trade agreements.

“Every future major trade agreement now has to have a big section on fisheries,” Sullivan said, pointing to the United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement — the updated version of the North American Free Trade Agreement — as an example.

Sullivan also said the Trump administration’s new China trade deal includes an amount  of seafood valued “in the billions” of dollars that China has agreed to buy.

Murkowski talked about pandemic relief too, but also spoke about National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association data collection on fish and fisheries disasters.

 “I am one who believes that we need to do another round of PPP (Paycheck Protection Program), particularly for our smaller businesses,” she said, but added that she didn’t know how Congress might accomplish that goal.

She’s also working on a bill called the Food Supply Protection Act, which would create grants and loans for food processors who are spending on personal protective equipment.

“We have heard loud and clear the costs that our processors have faced as they have attempted to make sure their workforce is safe,” she said.

The cancelation of NOAA fisheries surveys due to COVID-19 is also on Murkowski’s radar.

“We all recognize the need for good data so we can sustainably manage our fisheries,” she said

She said NOAA needs a better plan moving forward to conduct the surveys so Alaska doesn’t lose a year of data collection. Young, in his brief remarks after Murkowski’s, raised the idea of hiring local fishermen to help out with the surveys.

Murkowski also said she wants to speed up the responses for fisheries disasters, especially this year.

“We recognize this has been a tough year,” she said. “I will work in my position on Approps (the Senate Appropriations Committee) to secure whatever funding we need for fisheries disasters that are declared after this season.”

She’s working on a bill called the Fishery Fund Act that would update and modernize the fisheries disasters process.

The state delegation took center stage on Saturday.

 With the appointment process underway for Alaska’s Board of Fisheries, Stutes touched on several reform efforts she has in mind for that body.

One would be a rule allowing those on the board with a conflict of interest on issues to be able to speak, but not vote, on those issues. She said the rule got through the House last year, but not the Senate.

The other would reform the appointment process to address the issue of appointments participating in meetings before they are confirmed.

“Currently, we have four board members that are appointees that have not been confirmed by the Legislature that are participating in Board of Fish meetings,” Stutes said. “And that’s more than slightly alarming.”

She also spoke about her work on the Alaska Marine Highway System Reshaping Group and expressed something rarely heard about the ferry system: optimism.

“I am much more hopeful for an Alaska Marine Highway System after having meetings all summer than I was when we first started,” she said.

“Our service will never again be what it once was. We’ll have to create more sustainable and more efficient service, but we’re going to have service.”

Stevens talked about Senate Bill 130, a seafood product development tax credit bill that he is sponsoring. It didn’t make it through the Legislature last session, but he figures it has good enough support to pass next time.

It would add pollock and cod to a tax credit program that encourages further development in processing capacity.

“I think it has good support, so I’m anxious to get back to the Legislature and push that right along,” Stevens said.

That bill aside, he added that this upcoming session would be a mess. Oil prices are low. Debts are high. Savings accounts are mostly empty. The budget, he said, has been cut over $1 billion in the last few years, but more cuts will need to happen.

“This is going to be the worst session I’ve seen in my 20 years as a legislator,” he said.

“I hope people listen to what people running for office are saying and really question the math. We cannot give a full dividend of $3,000 and fund everything we have in the past. It’s just mathematically impossible.”

Input from constituents will be important to righting the ship, little by little, he said.

“We want to know where you think that money should be spent and where we can cut the budget and how we get out of this financial mess we are now in,” Stevens said.

By:  Andrew Kenneson
Source: Fairbanks Daily News-Miner

Related Issues: Alaska's Fisheries