At Kodiak fisheries debate, Gara and Walker find common ground while Dunleavy is a no-show

At a forum on fishery issues held in the seaport town of Kodiak, two of the leading gubernatorial contenders spent time focusing on a man who was not there: incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy.

After about an hour of in-depth discussions of fishery issues that included climate change and its effects in the oceans, the role of hatchery fish in the ecosystem and economy, the infrastructure and workforce development needs of the fishing industry and state fiscal policies, former state Rep. Les Gara and former Gov. Bill Walker turned their fire directly on Dunleavy.

The Republican incumbent, who failed to attend, has shirked too many debates, showing a lack of regard for Alaska voters, they argued.

“You have to wonder about somebody who won’t share their ideas with you. You have to wonder about somebody who won’t come to listen with you,” Gara, a Democrat, said in his closing remarks. “If he doesn’t have the courtesy to show up at over 90% of the debates, then he’s got ideas that he doesn’t want to share with people.”

“I am running for governor because Alaska needs someone that will show up…someone who will represent not just their political donors but the entire state,” Walker, an independent, said in his summary remarks. “You can tell how hard someone will work as governor based on how hard they work to become governor. And this governor has not.”

In contrast to their disdain for Dunleavy, Gara and Walker expressed support for each other at the fishery forum, as they have done elsewhere. They urged voters to mark both their names in Alaska’s new ranked-choice system.

The Kodiak Chamber of Commerce has been hosting fishery forums for the past 30 years, and in the past the events were seen as musts for serious candidates seeking statewide office. They are considered the only election forums focused specifically on fisheries.

But in 2018, Dunleavy declined to go, and that year’s gubernatorial fishery forum wound up canceled.

Dunleavy made a similar decision about the Kodiak event this year. His campaign announced in early August that the governor would attend only five debates, a group that did not include the Kodiak fishery forum.

Instead of attending the Kodiak event, which was held in the high school, broadcast live on Kodiak public radio station KMXT and posted on the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce’s Facebook page, Dunleavy was in western Alaska on Monday checking on the recovery progress after the disastrous storm that hit more than two weeks ago, his spokesman Andrew Jensen said.

That left Gara and Walker to discuss what they considered to be the most important fishery issues facing Alaska.

For Gara, a top priority is addressing bycatch, the accidental catch and disposal of nontargeted species. He cited approximately 550,000 chum salmon that were incidentally caught in the 2021 Bering Sea pollock fishery, a total nearly twice the 10-year average.

To address bycatch rationally will require “smart, level-headed, balanced people” representing the state on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, Gara said. He criticized the actions of Dunleavy’s Fish and Game commissioner, Doug Vincent-Lang, who is one of the council members.

“I was very disappointed when I saw the state’s representative block a motion to put a cap on chum bycatch on the Bering Sea, when there’s bycatch of 550,000 chum and no chum going up the Kuskokwim and no chum going up the Yukon. This is not fair to the people of western Alaska,” he said.

Dunleavy last November created a task force to study bycatch. But Gara dismissed that as political showmanship and said the task force will have no power to take action to address the problem.

Walker, who called bycatch “significant issue,” said he respects people on Dunleavy’s task force, but concurred with Gara on the group’s lack of effectiveness. “I want a ‘do force.’ I want decisions made,” he said.

Walker named as one of his top priorities a need to address the aging population of commercial fishermen, “the graying of the fleet, or the balding of the fleet, however you want to put it.”

“My concern is the cost of entry. It is very difficult for young folks to get into the various fisheries because of just the sheer cost of it,” he said. At stake, if the younger generations fail to carry on Alaska’s fishing traditions, is control of a key state livelihood and even the state’s culture and identity. “We became a state to have that kind of control of our fisheries. We need to make sure we maintain that.”

Both said they want the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to be better funded, especially to conduct science work. And both criticized what they characterized as a rudderless fiscal policy that has spent down savings and depended on temporarily high oil prices.

“Over the years, we’ve seen what happens when you continue to cut and continue to cut and cut and cut,” Walker said. “I’m all about science, but you have to fund it. You’ve got to fund it. … When decisions are made without science it’s a dangerous thing to do.”

The state needs more revenue for all its services, including fishery science, Gara said, and he called for an end to what he characterized as a costly scheme that gives credits to oil companies. “We need to have revenue in this state again, not just revenue one year when Russia invades Ukraine. That’s not a fiscal plan,” he said.

Both said they are optimistic about Alaska’s nascent seaweed-cultivation industry and other forms of mariculture.

“It’s a wonderful industry,” Gara said. Among other benefits, it provides opportunities for fishermen and fishing communities to make money in the shoulder seasons when fish are not being harvested, he said. “I would like to do everything we can to expand this industry,” he said.

Walker pointed to his past support of mariculture, including his creation of a task force that laid out a broad strategy for expanding Alaska shellfish and seaweed cultivation into a $100 million-a-year industry.

“It needs infrastructure. It needs marketing help. It needs a statutory change so ASMI can promote the kelp,” he said, referring to the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute, a state agency that promotes fish. “I think it’s limited only by our imagination, what we can do in Alaska with kelp.”

He lauded a recently announced $49 million federal grant to expand the industry.

Hours before Gara and Walker spoke at the forum, Kodiak residents at the city’s harbor said Dunleavy should have come to the event.

Nick Mangini, owner of Kodiak Island Sustainable Seaweed, said he had hoped to hear Dunleavy’s views on his industry, as well as other locally important issues. He was also disappointed at U.S. Senate candidate Kelly Tshibaka’s decision to skip Kodiak.

“I think that they should probably take enough time to come spend some time in the second-biggest fishing port in the state. There’s a lot of topics out there right now that affect us in a lot of different ways. It seems like they should take the time to try to appeal to us as well,” Mangini said.

David Horne, working on his boat in the harbor, said he has been critical of Dunleavy because of the governor’s policies on state ferries. Horne said Dunleavy appears to be making a strategic decision in skipping Kodiak.

“He’s going to go after that Anchorage vote, that vote up there where most of the people are. He doesn’t really need our votes to win, I don’t think. But he certainly should,” Horne said.

Angel Bravo, loading a pickup truck next to the harbor, had a similar take. “It would be nice to have him here, just to hear us. Even if it’s a waste of time, it would assure us that somebody cares,” he said.

In an email, Dunleavy campaign spokesman Andrew Jensen said the governor will address fishery issues at future debates. He has committed to attending events hosted by the Resource Development Council for Alaska, the Alaska Federation of Natives and the Alaska media-hosted Debate for the State.

“We expect fisheries and fisheries policy to be topics at our next three forums (RDC, Debate for the State, and AFN), and the Governor will have multiple opportunities to speak on these issues and others that matter to Alaskans,” Jensen said by email.

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