Challengers fillet Dunleavy’s fish policies at Kodiak debate

two men side by side
Democrat Les Gara and independent Bill Walker are two progressives in the 2022 race for Alaska governor. (Mizelle Mayo and Valerie Kern/Alaska Public Media)

Kodiak’s fisheries debates kicked off Monday night with two challengers in the governor’s race, Les Gara and Bill Walker.

The need for more science to manage Alaska’s fisheries came up early and often during Monday’s debate. So did climate change. And both candidates say incumbent Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s budget has hamstrung the state’s ability to do its own research on changing ocean conditions.

“On one flight here, I sat next to a young lady who was a fisheries research biologist who was laid off because of budget cuts. We need the best available information in making decisions, we need the best available research,” said former governor and independent candidate Bill Walker.

Democrat Les Gara immediately ripped into Dunleavy’s budget cuts. He said the commercial fishing industry is just one area where Alaskans are suffering from the consequences.

“We can’t retain teachers, we can’t retain police,” Gara said. “I want a strong Department of Fish and Game that does studies. You know what our Department of Fish and Game commissioner does now? He testifies and talks about all the studies he’s asked the feds to pay for.”

Bycatch – the incidental catch of nontarget species, like salmon – also came up early and often. 

Dunleavy created the Bycatch Review Task Force last year, but Gara called it “powerless.” 

“And he put it together so its recommendations would come out after the legislative session was over, so they couldn’t do anything with it,” Gara said.

Gara said picking the right people for Alaska’s seats on the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council is a better way to address the issue of bycatch. 

Walker also says the timing of the task force was convenient for Dunleavy as he runs for reelection, but he’d keep it around if he were elected. He says the work the group is doing is important for both commercial fishermen and subsistence harvesters in areas where salmon populations are crashing.

“I like the idea of it being a year-round, not just ‘It’s going to expire in November.’ This issue is not going to expire in November,” Walker said.

Dunleavy didn’t attend Monday’s fisheries debate, which is held in Kodiak every election year. He wasn’t at the last one in 2018 either. 

The conversation between Walker and Gara was amicable, and at times lighthearted.

Both candidates say they’re tentatively in favor of hatcheries – as long as they don’t harm wild fish. They talked about the significance of the federal Bipartisan Infrastructure Law for working waterfronts in coastal communities.

Mariculture also came up.

Walker said the industry could be a boon for Alaska, but it needs more support and investment – and he claims seaweed makes pretty good beer, too. Gara said he’d favor small business loans for fishermen to get started in kelp farming. 

“I would like to do everything we can to expand this industry,” Gara said. “It’s a shoulder-season industry, so if you’re fishing in the summer you can still do mariculture when you’re not out fishing.”

Both candidates were asked about their long-term visions for Alaska’s seafood industry. Walker identified barriers to entry for new fishermen as one of the biggest challenges he sees for the industry.

“Every fishing boat in my world is a small business and many times it’s a family business, and I want to make sure that is carried on and on for generations,” Walker said.

When asked who they would choose for Alaska’s Fish and Game commissioner, both Walker and Gara said they want someone who is passionate and has management skills. Gara said he’s looking for someone who can talk fish.

“It would be someone who was not selected because of their politics,” Gara said. “I want someone who will make decisions based on science.”

Monday’s debate was the first of three fisheries debates in Kodiak, held over two nights. Congressional debates start Tuesday at 6:30 p.m, first with candidates for Alaska’s U.S. House seat, followed by two candidates for U.S. Senate – Democrat Pat Chesbro and incumbent Sen. Lisa Murkowski – at 8:15 p.m.

Members of the public can attend Tuesday night’s debates at the Gerald C. Wilson Auditorium. KMXT will also be airing the debates and streaming them on its website.

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