Peltola has fish on her mind during Cama-i trip to Bethel

Mary Peltola
Rep. Mary Peltola at a campaign event in Bethel, March 15, 2024. (Sage Smiley/KYUK)

Alaska’s sole U.S. representative, Mary Peltola, returned home to Bethel for the Cama-i Dance Festival last weekend. While she was in town, she sat down with KYUK’s Sage Smiley to discuss infrastructure, fish and why she’s running for re-election.


The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity.

Sage Smiley: Thank you so much for joining us here today, Rep. Peltola, we’re really excited that you stopped by KYUK.

Rep. Mary Peltola: It’s always good to be home, Sage, and it’s always fun to come back to KYUK.

Smiley: So you’re back for Cama-i primarily, right? How is it to be back?

Peltola: It’s wonderful. It’s so bright and sunny, and I love home this time of year when the days are getting longer and you can feel the birds are going to be coming back soon, breakup is on the horizon. Manaq season is a fun time to come home when everybody’s ice fishing, and yuraqing, and dog sled mushing so you can tell people are out and about more. Cabin fever has definitely set in and we’re just enjoying being outdoors now.

SmileyWhat’s your favorite part of Cama-i?

Peltola: I love the craft fair. I love watching the young kids, many elementary schools have their students yuraq. And I think it’s really great to see how vibrant our culture is. You know, for a lot of Native American cultures, Alaska Native cultures, we feel that they’re, you know, on the decline or out of our grasp. I think the anthropological term is moribund; languages that are no longer spoken. And in the (Yukon-Kuskokwim) Delta and Alaska, Yup’ik is the fastest growing language after English. So it really is a testament to our survival and how we are still thriving.

SmileyAbsolutely. So I want to jump into this interview by starting to talk about fish, because fish is, of course, one of the pillars that you initially ran on. As you have said on multiple occasions, you are made of salmon. And so I want to start out talking about fish and the state of commercial fisheries specifically. I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the state of commercial fisheries with processors being sold, with runs in many areas other than Bristol Bay, both that people use for subsistence and for commercial fisheries declining, what is your take on the state of fisheries in Alaska?

Peltola: Well, we’re really strained in all categories. I think if you look across the state at every river system, chinook salmon are really down in every single watershed and the Kuskokwim is no exception. Whether you’re a subsistence fisherman – and we know how dire things are here, and especially on the Yukon, Norton Sound, Southeast folks have been feeling the strain, not just with salmon in Southeast but also with herring and herring eggs. And we’ve seen it with halibut, we’ve seen it with crab. And, you know, specifically to salmon and the commercial market, we’re very concerned about this.

Commercial fishing used to be a big part of our income on the Kuskokwim. The average commercial fisherman made about $6,000 a year, which by today’s standards, or statewide standards is not a lot. But in the 80s and 90s, that was a substantial amount for a household in this region, and went a very long way to making sure that we had resources for other subsistence activities. And it’s certainly a huge part of the economy in Southeast and in Southcentral still. And we’ve seen a glut on the market of especially red salmon. One of the concerns that we have is that the market is depressed. We’re concerned that disaster money takes too long through the bureaucracy to make it to fishing families. For them to make it from year to year, many commercial fishermen still have a boat payment, they still have overhead that they’re not able to address. So one of the things that I have been a champion of is having the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) buy salmon to get it off, to get that glut off the market. And we have been successful in that. USDA purchased salmon in bulk, $200 million worth in 2023. And the most recent purchase was for $150 million to help salmon fishermen have a better market. And another thing that we’ve done is we have really put the pressure on President Biden, and he responded positively on his executive order to work at banning Russian fish that’s being marketed through China using Uighur slave labor, which is impossible for a free market economy to compete with if you’re dealing with an economy that is using inhumane slave labor. So that executive order has gone through, we’re very hopeful – I’m very hopeful that this will signal to the seven other largest economies in the G7 that this is not either sustainable or humane, this fishery in Russia and China and the way that they market it in Europe. So hopefully that will ultimately help our Alaskan fishermen get a better price for their fish. But we’re very worried about processors and canneries closing down, and fishermen have long standing relationships with these companies. And everybody’s worried about it. And we’re doing what we feel like we can to help improve the commercial economy.

But the reason I ran for office is because in our region, it was, like, the best kept secret in Alaska and the best kept secret in the United States that we have had this, you know, ecosystem collapse, if you will, in these two huge river systems that are so dependent on salmon. And we are not seeing the council, the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, take as much action as we feel is necessary, we urgently feel that is necessary. I feel like it’s very important for continued dialogue about fish issues. I have been hearing regularly from Alaskans. I really appreciate the feedback I get from Alaskans around the state. There’s an upcoming North Pacific Fisheries Management Council meeting in April, and chum salmon bycatch is on the agenda, along with a lot of other important fish issues. And we’re already starting to talk about the next Pacific Salmon Treaty negotiations with Canada and the Lower 48. And that begins in 2028. We’re already starting these discussions.

RELATED: Amid salmon crash, Alaska’s Yukon River residents say a new pact with Canada leaves them behind

One of the issues that I really was hoping would have traction is reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act. That was something that had traction in the 117th Congress; this is the 118th Congress. We knew from the beginning that that was not going to be addressed. So I took another angle which was to pressure (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), I refocused and have been working with NOAA to examine their 10 National Standards. These national standards are sometimes referred to as the ‘10 commandments,’ and they apply to all of the national councils, including the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. The three standards that I’ve been in a discussion with NOAA about re-examining are communities – the definition of communities, the definition of allocation, and the definition of bycatch. And the big concern is that when you are talking about metric tons of bycatch every year being just thrown out, juvenile salmon, halibut, and crab, after 30 years that has to have a cumulative effect. If there are eight other stressors on salmon, halibut, and crab, dumping out metric tons of juveniles is not helping the situation. It can only be hurting the situation, and any logical practical person can see this. But it’s challenging because we are dealing with a culture that defers to corporate entities that defers to big industry, it defers to the taxable resource, not the resource that isn’t taxable or gets very low yields of taxes, and, unfortunately, ComFish, the (Alaska) Department of Fish and Game, their number one concern is ex-vessel value. So that is the cash value of commercial harvests. And of course, the largest purse, the largest sector to contribute to that is the factory trawling industrial fleet. So we we recognize this, we see this and we continue to look for ways to deal with this challenge. I’m one of 435 in the House. If you add the Senate, I’m one of 535 members in all of Congress. I’ve been there 18 months, and I have to be realistic with what I am able to achieve in an 18 month period of time as one member out of 535 members in a state that is very little known or understood.

Smiley: Many people know that you are an advocate against factory trawling and issues like that, that are so tied up in money and in livelihoods and in giant industry can be very tense. Has that changed at all? I mean, I saw that there was a post from your team about pollock being low on bycatch.

Peltola: So that was a real problem. And that is something that we are working on. So this is a good example of how my digital team was trying to bring levity. They’re always looking for ways to bring levity. I’m a pretty serious person and especially when it comes to fish. It’s no laughing matter. But the team, you know, to keep people in the Lower 48 engaged with our social media, they did this last year as well. They have this Fish Madness. It’s kind of a take off on March Madness and basketball, but it’s people voting on what fish is the best fish. Last year, the digital team accidentally put bass as one of them – bass is not even an Alaska fish. So that was a huge snafu last year. This year, they were cutting and pasting information from NOAA’s website and from Fish and Game’s website. Unfortunately, they cut and pasted information on pollock straight from one of these websites. And it was not reviewed by me or our fish guy. It didn’t have any internal review. So that went out. And it said that it is one of the smallest –

Smiley: – lowest percentage bycatch fish in Alaska.

Peltola: Well, and the problem with that, and the thing that is enraging about that statement is you’re talking about metric tons, metric tons. And if, yeah, technically, percentage wise, but if you’re harvesting metric tons, and your bycatch is metric tons, that’s a lot. And it doesn’t matter. That’s a numbers game. That’s trickery. It’s deception based on percentages. And Alaskans know that and we have no patience for deception and trickery by scientists. We don’t need a fisheries degree to know that our returns are dismal and a fraction of what they should be. Every Alaskan knows from their own lived experience that salmon are smaller, there’s less females. And there are just less, you know, I think on the Kuskokwim, we’re getting 20% of our actual need. On the Yukon, they’re getting 0% of their actual need. So to say that is disingenuous and misleading. And so it is enraging. And we had a very large discussion about this. And we came to the conclusion that the digital platform is a good way to explain to non-Alaskans how seriously we take this, that this is not a joke. This is – nothing could be more serious to every Alaskan. And this is a prime example of that disconnect. And instead of shutting the Fish Madness down, we decided, okay, we’re going to continue to use this platform as a way to educate people and really add truth to this discussion. So we’re going to keep it going. And, and yes, lessons learned. failing forward. There is no day that happens in my life that goes glitch free. There’s always setbacks. This is certainly a setback. And I hope that people recognize that everything that you see on the internet is not coming directly from me. And there will be in the course of this campaign deceptions and misunderstandings and outright lies. And it’s just really important to do the fact checking all the time. And this is a perfect example of that on my side, on my team and for people reading it. And certainly if you know me, please text me. Many people in the Y-K Delta have my cell number, send me a text, let me know that this rankled you or ruffled your feathers. I’m 50 years old, it’s really hard for me to change. And certainly it would be hard for me to change my values or reason for doing things. And whether or not I’m in Congress or not, Bethel will always be my home, the Kuskokwim will always be my home. I always intend to fish here and be an advocate for our resources here.

SmileySo to reiterate the things that you’re working on or looking forward to, or trying to accomplish with respect to these commercial fisheries, the management of bycatch. Will you just review for me the things that you are working on or are planning on working on with respect to addressing these fisheries declines and the effect of both the commercial fishing declines and also just the effect of potential effects of bycatch on fisheries throughout the state of Alaska?

Peltola: Sure, well, we’re trying to change the culture, changing a culture is almost impossible. And you can see that just with the strength of the Yup’ik culture, despite having TV, and internet, and all of the different platforms to watch TV and movies and Hollywood and hip hop, we are still a solid culture with solid values. We still have communities that function as communities. It is very hard to really change a culture, and I have seen this in bureaucracies and in systems, bureaucratic systems. This is especially true with the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council. Even though there’s nowhere in writing that says, “You will defer 100% entirely to the Department of Fish and Game,” this is baked into the culture of that organization. So rather than listening to stakeholders who are there, pleading passionately for changes, talking about the real effects that this is having on ourselves individually, on our families, on our communities, on our way of interacting with each other, we still are not seeing changes because that the culture there is so hard to change. So I’m looking at different angles, like national standards. I know that sounds really abstract, but it can have substantial effects if we’re able. So this is a good example: ‘communities’ is one of the national standards. We know what a community is here. Our communities have been reliant on salmon for at least 12,000 years. And the reason that we have these communities in these general locations for 12,000 years is because of this relationship to salmon. We know that every summer those salmon are going to return home and spawn, and be a resource for us to respectfully harvest and put away for the winter and consume. And the foundation of our culture is on not wasting and sharing. And when we look at the culture of the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, and then the culture of capitalism, we don’t – there, it’s completely different. Those systems are not built on not wasting and sharing. And so there is a huge disconnect. We are working on that. But it will take longer than 18 months, it will take more than one person pushing for these changes. But I am very focused on making sure that people understand how deeply concerning this is for Alaskans wellbeing so we don’t ever really let up on the gas. And we have been working on a piece of legislation that addresses bycatch, we want to make sure that it’s in the best form it can be before we introduce it. We know that it will be assigned to multiple committees, we know that it’ll go through both the House and the Senate and ultimately to the President. We want to make sure we have the best bill to start with to make sure that we can get as many allies as we can going forward and other members of Congress to make sure that it’s successful. And just so many conversations about how important fish is. The interesting thing to me is, there is nothing funny about fish to any Alaskan, no matter how old they are, no matter where they live. There’s just nothing funny or silly about it. And in the Lower 48, fish is a bit of a punchline, they think, “Fish, Family, Freedom,” there’s something a bit silly about it, because they do not have the same relationship to salmon or fish that we do. It is not part of their livelihood and part of their diet the same way it is for us. So that is something that I have come to notice. And we keep running into more and more examples of this disconnect between how serious it is here. And sometimes how unserious it is outside of Alaska

Smiley: With respect to subsistence and the system of subsistence management that exists in the state, how do you view the current landscape of management, federal and state, and how subsistence is managed here?

Peltola: Well, again, the Department of Fish and Game – across the nation, the states are really the entities that the feds like to defer to manage fish. If you look at (the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), they really honestly should be called birds and wildlife because they typically don’t manage fish, and they don’t have a deep bench of fisheries biologists who have experienced managing fish. Often they will hire people who have retired from Fish and Game. And what I have seen is within commercial fisheries, the Department of Fish and Game – 99% of the culture of Fish and Game is weighted by commercial fisheries and in the Division of Commercial Fisheries, their number one kind of their sole focus and obsession is ex-vessel value. So if that’s your primary focus, subsistence doesn’t have an ex-vessel value, personal use doesn’t have an ex-vessel value. And so even for the folks who are along the road system who put away six freezer fish that has no cash value or economic benefit or home economic benefit to the department, Division of ComFish within the Department of Fish and Game. But those of us in Alaska who put away even six freezer fish, we know that there is a huge economic impact to having that wild meat because it defrayed the cost of very expensive groceries otherwise and compound that to the remote parts of Alaska that have been placed based because of the reliance on this food source. And then it, you know, it’s very dangerous putting a cash value on subsistence for us because it means so much more than cash. If I had to pay, you know, $10,000 a year to put up 50 salmon for subsistence – that’s worth every penny to me. It doesn’t matter how much the cash value is as long as I can make sure that I am passing along those traditions and teaching my descendants how to fish, how to prepare fish, how to have a taste for fish. We’re at the point now where we’re concerned that our descendants won’t have a taste for fish, they won’t know how to eat fish. There is nothing worse than that, in my opinion, there is nothing scarier and worse than that to me.

SmileyAt the Alaska Federation of Natives, you mentioned potentially trying to move the federal subsistence office under the Department of the Interior. I’m wondering if you could speak to why you see that as important? What that might change for protecting subsistence rights for Alaska Native people and where that is in process.

Peltola: So the Office of Subsistence Management is very unique to Alaska, the Federal Subsistence Board is very unique to Alaska, there is no other state that has such a high dependence on wild game and fish as Alaska does. Because of ANILCA, there is a rural preference for subsistence, and the Federal Subsistence Board – the prioritization only happens if a species is in decline, and if a species is restricted. And then if that species is restricted, it’s up to the Federal Subsistence Board to say, “Okay, we’re going to federalize this, we’re going to close it. And then we’re going to open it only to federally qualified users,” which means the people who live closest to that resource. So that means if you live along the Kuskokwim, while there’s federal management, only the people who live year-round on the Kuskokwim have access to fish during the federal allowed fishing of that resource. So even if you’re from a nearby community, if the Office of Subsistence Management hasn’t said that you’re one of the communities dependent on this resource, then you don’t you’re not eligible for it. This is not something that everybody agrees with. But this is how the law was written. It’s rural preference, rural priority. Right now, the Federal Subsistence Board is comprised of five agency members, (Bureau of Indian Affairs), (Bureau of Land Management), (U.S. Forest Service), (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service, and National Park Service. And then there’s three public members. The agency people, many of them have just been transferred to Alaska. Many of them have not been here very long, most of them only are in that position for five years, and then they’re out. So the most experience of anybody you’re going to get on the Federal Subsistence Board from the agency side is five years or less, oftentimes it’s brand new. The three public members, they need to show that they have been subsistence users, have traditional knowledge, pass on that traditional knowledge they have to show that they harvest year round in all of these seasonal rounds. They don’t have any staff, these three public members. The agency members all have staff, the agency often meets before the meeting to decide how these decisions are going to play out without the three public members. By the time the meeting convenes, the decisions have been made, and the real Alaskans who have been here are not really part of that decision-making. All of this activity is housed under the (U.S.) Fish and Wildlife Service. And in my opinion, it would be better to have the Federal Subsistence Board out of one of the federal agencies. Another thing – one of the biggest concerns with that is because it’s housed under (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service). The (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) has total discretion over how the budget is spent. So the federal government allocates a certain number of million dollars every year for the management of subsistence, Office of Subsistence Management (OSM). And a huge percentage right off the top goes to the Division of Ecological Services within (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service), that has nothing to do with subsistence management. So they’re skimming a huge fraction of the overall budget to fund non-subsistence issues. When clearly, right now with all of the different species that are in decline and being restricted many different kinds of salmon, caribou in many different regions of the state, moose in certain game units across the state, on and on. We need all of the resources that – OSM needs all the resources, they need the whole amount, they need 100% of the federal allocation without any being skimmed off the top for non-subsistence management issues. That is my chief concern.

SmileyAnd you feel like that will be changed under the Department of the Interior.

Peltola: I think if – and one of the misconceptions is that the request is to have this managed out of Washington D.C., that is not true. We, everyone agrees it needs to be managed within Alaska by Alaskans with as much feedback from Alaskans as possible. But it should not necessarily be under the umbrella of any of the federal agencies because the temptation is just too strong to take money away from the program for non-subsistence issues. Every federal agency is strained. Every federal agency has inflation issues, freight issues, personnel issues, everything’s going up, nothing’s coming down. Most funding is, at best, the same, status quo. So every federal agency is going to be looking for money to skim. And whichever federal agency is overseeing the Office of Subsistence Management is going to be tempted to do that. So yes, I think the Office of Subsistence Management should be a standalone agency without any ability for any other agency to take money out of their program.

SmileyInfrastructure and climate impacts on infrastructure and on communities more broadly, is a huge issue faced by a lot of Alaska communities, especially Alaska Native communities, like those in the Y-K Delta. And a recent report from the Alaska Native Tribal Health Consortium shows that the state needs at least $80 million a year to properly be addressing those impacts and that the federal funds that do exist are not accessible to the communities that need them, whether that’s for relocations, for shoring up infrastructure, for moving water infrastructure. For example, in somewhere like Napakiak that’s retreating from the Kuskokwim River –

Peltola: Their bulk fuel storage and school are right on the precipice –

Smiley: Exactly –

Peltola: – of erosion.

RELATED: FEMA awards $2.4M to Napakiak as it retreats from Kuskokwim erosion

Smiley: – I’m wondering what you’re working on or what you feel like you have the ability to do to help communities address and help make resources more available for communities as they’re facing down these slow-moving – but more quickly moving as we progress – impacts of climate change.

Peltola: So right now it is March, and we are just now starting our appropriations process and my portal on my website, my official website, Sen. Murkowski’s portal on her official website are both open. The Senate capital projects go by a different acronym and name than the house capital projects acronym and name. I encourage any community that wants to submit an application to just submit it to one of our offices because we collaborate, our teams collaborate, and we work hand in glove together to make sure we’re not being redundant, that there’s good geographic distribution of projects that we are covering as many different aspects of need as we can. And beyond the yearly capital appropriations that we advocate and bring home and are successful on – Alaska brings home more federal dollars than any other state, as we should, because in terms of infrastructure we are 100 or 200 years behind every other state in the nation. In addition to these capital requests and capital expenditures, I believe we need to really build up The Denali Commission back to its former self at the height of its power. Ted Stevens, Sen. Stevens, created The Denali Commission especially for these infrastructure needs, and especially in rural Alaska. He was specifically thinking of bulk fuel storage, relocation issues, new power houses, every community has exorbitantly high electricity costs and heating costs. And every community has aged bulk fuel storage tanks sometimes not positioned in a good place. Many of our communities either need to have their power house completely replaced or beefed up because we have more runways that are well lit. We’ve had new schools built, we’ve had new clinics built, more water and sewer projects as well, and all of those things create more demand on the power system. So the Senators and I have been looking at The Denali Commission. There are some staffing issues that need to be addressed immediately. I’m very hopeful that Julie Kitka will eventually be in a position to be the advocate, an employee, be the spokesperson for The Denali Commission. She’s been on the commission since its inception. She knows all of the institutional knowledge and she knows the communities very well. She has been running AFN since 1990. So she’s an exceptional leader. And I think she would be the kind of person that we would want running The Denali Commission. And of course, the federal delegation is going to do everything we can to reinvest in The Denali Commission.

SmileyYou’re running for reelection to office. I’m wondering why what prompts you to want to continue representing Alaskans in Congress?

Peltola: Well, many things. I feel like I’m just getting started. And I think we have had substantial Alaska wins. I think it’s been proven that our delegation is more effective when we have a bipartisan delegation. Because we had a Democrat in the White House and I’m a Democrat, we were able to have different conversations, we were able to have meetings that very likely would not have otherwise happened. And a good example is Willow. So we had the Willow win. And I know that I was very impactful and a real player in that. Then we had the executive order regarding Russian trawling and Chinese packaging of unsustainable, inhumane fish that had been in the works for 10 years. And I was able to make sure that that happened. We saw that. We’ve had the seafood buyback, we’ve had substantial wins because of our good relationship with this administration. This has been a do-nothing Congress, everybody can see that you pick up the paper or listen to the news, every day of the week. We barely have a Speaker right now in the house, and things are coming to the house to just languish. We’re not even, you know, they used to pass whole federal budgets every year until the late 90s. And then it changed to continuing resolutions. We’re not even doing full continuing resolutions any more. We’re doing blocks of continuing resolutions that we’re not meeting the deadlines on, we’re just postponing the deadline on that is not a good way to function as a Congress. So despite this kind of dysfunctional situation that we’re in, because our Alaska delegation is so unified and because we work so well together, we’re still able to get wins. I was the lead on preventing the merger between Kroger and Albertsons. The Federal Trade Commission sat up and took notice and has filed a lawsuit to stop that merger from happening. I know that I’m effective. I know that I work well, with the two U.S. senators, I work well with our governor. I have a very hard working team. And I’m just getting started. So of course, we’re back at it. And unfortunately, the campaign is every other year. So it just feels like you’re kind of always campaigning.

RELATED: Feds and 9 AGs sue to block Kroger-Albertsons supermarket merger

SmileyIs there anything you want to add as we wrap up this interview?

Peltola: Well, I’ve always been a local Kuskokwim girl. All of the experience that I’ve been able to acquire has been experience here, originating here in this region. I think we have amazing leadership in this region that I’ve really been able to learn a lot from. I think that across Alaska, we have amazing leaders that I’ve been able to learn from. Alaskans have really been an amazing exam, an amazing example to the rest of the United States about civility, respectfulness, bipartisanship, putting aside partisanship, working to find solutions. And I really feel like that is something that I’m able to bring to D.C. and really walk the talk.

SmileyThank you very much for your time today. I really appreciate it.

Peltola: Thank you.

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