Fish Factor: U.S. Senate debate is on tap for 2020 ComFish Alaska

Kodiak has again scored a first debate between candidates in one of Alaska’s most high-profile political races: the U.S. Senate.

Kodiak has been hosting debates for congressional and gubernatorial hopefuls since 1999 with a single focus: Alaska’s seafood industry.

The date and format for the U.S. Senate faceoff are still being finalized, but it will occur in close proximity to the annual ComFish event on Sept. 17 and 18, bumped by COVID-19 from its traditional dates in March, and now set to be a virtual experience.

Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan and Independent challenger Dr. Al Gross are working out the details of their participation, said Sarah Phillips, executive director at the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce and ComFish organizer.

Viewers can livestream the debate via Facebook, YouTube and comfishak.com, Williams said. Those platforms also will be used for the many educational forums that will be presented virtually and made available online long after.

Phillips is certain there will be a great deal of interest in the debate and ComFish events, based on the response to a virtual five-day annual Crab Fest the chamber successfully pulled off last month.

“We actually had an audience of 44,000 tune in for Crab Fest so we got a lot more reach than we typically do,” she said. “We are very aware that we have a big audience outside of Kodiak.”

Still, Phillips admits that Islanders will miss the swarm of visitors, trade show exhibitors and industry experts that normally fill the town during a normal ComFish.

“We can’t deny that our local hospitality industry is very highly impacted by this,” she said. “Everything from our hotels to our B&Bs and restaurants and bars. Kodiak is a really fun place for our attendees and vendors to come to, and we are missing that significant economic driver. And our fishing industry really relies on the goods and services and information that ComFish brings.”

On a related note, Pacific Marine Expo also has canceled its event planned for early December in Seattle. A virtual “Expo Online” will instead be presented by National Fisherman on Nov. 17-19.

BOF earful

Hundreds of Alaskans gave legislators an earful at recent hearings on controversial appointees to the Board of Fisheries (BOF), which oversees management of the state’s subsistence, commercial, sport and personal use fisheries.

Comments are still being accepted and had topped 500 after two virtual hearings, one on Aug. 28 convened by Sen. Peter Micciche, R-Soldotna, and another held jointly by the House Fisheries and Resources committees on Sept. 3, where over 100 people also called in to testify.

The overwhelming majority of Alaskans expressed polite outrage at Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s selection of Abe Williams of Anchorage, director of regional affairs for the Pebble Mine. He would be the second member to be affiliated with Pebble should he be approved by the full Legislature. During the five-hour Sept. 3 hearing, only four spoke in favor of Williams’ appointment.

Nearly all comments also sharply criticized the makeup of the seven-member board which would be dominated by sportfish seats, and that only one member, John Jensen of Petersburg, represents a coastal fishing region.

Alaskans also finally got a chance to hear from unknown appointee McKenzie Mitchell of Fairbanks, a self-proclaimed hunting and sportfish guide, small plane enthusiast and an adjunct professor in “economics and recreation management” at the University of Alaska/Fairbanks.

As credentials for serving on the fish board, Mitchell offered her graduate thesis titled “Determinants of Anglers Willingness to Pay to Support the Recreational (Halibut) Quota Entity Program.” (Halibut is not a state managed fishery; it falls under the jurisdiction of the International Pacific Halibut Commission.)

Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anchorage, revealed that Mitchell had never attended a BOF meeting until after she was appointed by the governor, and directly questioned her lack of qualifications and experience to serve on such a complex board.

Ms. Mitchell’s verbatim response: “Yeah, absolutely. Thank you for that question. I can understand that I have not really been involved in this process, you know, prior to the appointment and last winter when I, you know, the, you know, I became aware that, you know, some positions were going to be coming open and, you know, and then I decided to put my name in for a seat and, and the reason I guess I wasn’t involved before is I, I just graduated school in May of 2019.

“And so I, you know, my life kind of went through a big transition over the last year and a half as I completed school and completed my pilot ratings that I’ve been working at, and, you know, during those years I was waiting tables five and six nights a week while I was in school, but, you know, it’s just and now all of a sudden I’ve graduated and I have a more stable employment. And, um, you know, I have thecredentials to support a different lifestyle as opposed to, you know, trying to be a student and pay for school and whatnot, and all of a sudden I, my life has changed in the last year and a half and has given me the opportunities to be, become involved, and that’s, I guess, what I’m trying to do. So, thank you.”

A stream of commenters called Mitchell “woefully lacking in experience,” and “a glaring example of why there is no trust in the system,” and called her appointment “an insult to the process” and “criminal.”

Four testified in support, each saying they believed Mitchell would provide “fresh perspectives.”

Although they have not been confirmed by the Alaska Legislature, Mitchell and Williams will be voting members on upcoming Prince William Sound and Southeast Alaska fish issues if the Board of Fisheries convenes its meeting cycle starting in October.

According to Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, the governor could call a special session and include confirmations on the agenda, but that must be done by Dec. 15. If no special session is called, “the current appointments would be interpreted as a no vote by the Alaska Legislature and they are not eligible for reappointment during the next session,” Stutes said.

It all could become a moot point.

The Board of Fisheries will hold a listen-only teleconference 2:30-4:30 p.m. Sept. 16 to consider its 2020-21 meeting schedule due to constraints posed by the COVID-19 pandemic. A live audio stream of the teleconference will be available at boardoffisheries.adfg.alaska.gov.

The board accepted public comments on the topic from July 22 through Aug. 31, and the majority voiced support for postponing the meetings as opposed to holding them online. Additional written comments may be sent through Sept. 11 to dfg.bof.comments@alaska.gov or mailed to Boards Support Section, P.O. Box 115526, Juneau, AK 99811-5526.