Story last updated at 4/29/2009 - 11:25 am
When it comes to taking pride in Alaska's fisheries, differences are set aside.
That proved true at a statehood anniversary celebration last Thursday in Kodiak that highlighted 50 years of Alaska's seafood industry.
A remarkable mix of roughly 225 people were lucky enough to get tickets to the event at the Golden Anchor on the U.S. Coast Guard base. It included a seafood smorgasbord, entertainment and a rare chance to rub elbows with special guests - Governor Sarah Palin and Senator Ted Stevens.
Senator Stevens arrived early, looking spry and happy. He tirelessly posed for pictures and signed event programs, all the while shaking hands with friends and fans. Stevens was clearly in a "comfort zone;" he remarked several times, "It's so good to be home."
Gov. Palin and Todd appeared right on time for dinner and (as with Ted Stevens) there was a buzz as soon as they entered the building. At first, the governor appeared a bit tense and uncertain, but there was a friendly vibe in the room and she soon visibly relaxed. Palin happily posed for pictures throughout the evening and spoke comfortably and casually with the throngs of mostly women who gathered around her.
Fishing has always been part of Alaska's history, said historian Bob King, who began the evening's festivities. King authored a new booklet titled "Sustaining Alaska's Fisheries: 50 Years of Statehood" at the request of ADF&G and given out at the dinner.
"Some ridiculed the purchase of Alaska from Russia, but its biggest supporters were fishermen," King told the packed house. "They knew that 'Seward's ice box' was packed with salmon and cod and halibut. Canned salmon emerged as the first major industry in territorial days, and it dominated the economy like oil does today. Salmon provided over 80 percent of tax revenues and the move to statehood was pushed by resentment of outside (federal) control of the industry."
Next to speak was Gov. Palin, who received a standing ovation as she went to the podium.
"It is very fitting that we are here in Kodiak celebrating this - it being one of the most productive and beautiful fishing ports in all of our nation, and to remember just how far we've come - our shared passion for sustained fisheries, managed for abundance.
"We all are proud of our fishing heritage, which generates nearly $6 billion in economic output and accounting for over 50,000 jobs here. There is no doubt that our commercial seafood industry is critically important to our state and these local economies To many this vital and vibrant industry is a way of life, but it is fitting to recall that we weren't always so fortunate to have the thriving industry we have today.
"Looking back over 50 years - when delegates from around the state sat down to draft Alaska's constitution, and at the time our salmon runs were at disaster levels and our offshore fisheries were being pillaged by foreign fleets and many of our our other fisheries had yet to be developed, it was with wisdom and foresight that drafters of Alaska's constitution wrote our commitment to sustainability right in our constitution. It was with frustration and a real independent spirit that Alaskans voted to ban the fish traps that were allowing outside companies to control our resources. Our constitution mandated this - and we live by this now - that fish would be utilized, developed and maintained on a sustained yield principle, and that has guided fisheries management from the beginning of Alaska statehood.
"Sustainability is not a fad or a marketing gimmick. It is a long held, heartfelt commitment to our resources and to our children and future generations who we want to pass on that sustainability that we have been absolutely blessed with.
"This long term dedication to sustainability has resulted in Alaska's ability to offer the world an abundance of wild seafood which I believe is the cleanest, most natural, healthiest, most succulent in the world. It is the purest source of protein on God's green earth, and everywhere I go, I try and make more Americans understand that.
"Fisheries decisions are some of the most controversial calls that we make as leaders. Fish politics just gets so bizarre. (Commissioner) Denby Lloyd and I talk about this all the time - the personalities involved, and because we are all so passionate about our fish, and all the gear groups and regions and some of the infighting and the battles, and we have to remember that at the end of the day it is because we love the industry and this resource, so people argue so passionately for each side.
"Sometimes it comes down to this when we talk with lawmakers regarding decisions or appointments that are going to be made to the boards that control our fisheries. Some will say, the governor is so pro comfish (commercial fisheries) - look, one of her kid's names is Bristol after Bristol Bay. Denby has to remind them that I have another kid named Willow, after my favorite sport fishing grounds out in the Mat Su valley. Just count the number of kids I have and you'll know I'm all about abundance.
"I so appreciate Denby and his leadership - letting the biologists do their job. We committed when we first got elected to keep the politics out of these decisions and let the scientists do their job so we can have a vibrant, sustained industry. And in order for Alaska's sustainable fisheries to continue to thrive, they must be nourished by a commitment to sound science at every level, and that is starting at the governors' office. The commitment to manage based on biology, not on politics and the commitment to sustain a 50 year legacy of putting the long term health of the resource above the short term health of our wallets is what makes fisheries in Alaska special.
"To offer some personal aspects, my husband has been a commercial fisherman all his life - a drifter in Bristol Bay and now a setnetter on the Nushagak. And by the way, on that little trek we took across the nation when we did our campaign for VP, it was so cool to get to talk about commercial fishing, and in the parts of America - they watch the 'Deadliest Catch' so they think that I'm one of those guys out there. I never really had time to explain that I'm a setnetter on the Nushagak, so I kind of left them with that impression perhaps. But, so be it. (Lots of laughter)
"It's really cool to be a part of a commercial fishing family with such history as Todd's family has. His grandma was a boat builder at Bristol Bay - back then fishing out of the cell boats for five cents a fish....To be a part of that, and to now be in a position to help make decisions that we believe will help future generations of Alaskans be able to capitalize on what it is that Todd and I have benefited from."
"Knowing that it takes a whole crew in this industry to make it work, I want to thank other crew members and that is the fine men and women of the US Coast Guard who are on call day and night to help our fishermen. Words really can't adequately express my appreciation in all you do here in Alaska and in service to our country."
It was obvious that Gov. Palin really enjoys talking about fish - she exuded warmth and friendliness, and her overall demeanor was a throwback to the pre-VP campaign days when she could comfortably let down her guard. She closed with:
"I am so happy to share fellowship and friendship with all of you - learning more about where we were, where we may go -the opportunity to share with you to celebrate e with some of the hardest working, most independent residents in our great state, and that's Alaska's fishermen. I love you guys!"
Next up was recognition of Alaska's fishing Hall of Fame presented by Mark Vinsel executive director of United Fishermen of Alaska. (list of recipients follows) Pioneer Al Burch, who has served on nearly every national and international panel over 30 years, brought down the house when he got teary-eyed thanking his wife of 50 years, Barb, as 'the best fisherman's wife in Alaska."
Former Senator and fisheries quota share advocate Clem Tillion said, "There's no place I'd rather receive this award than Kodiak. When we were pushing quota shares for halibut they had a police escort for me when I came to town. Somebody said, 'Does it bother you that so many people hate you?' and I said, 'Well, I hope my wife doesn't but the rest of you are quite immaterial.'"
"When I served 20 years in Juneau I made everyone understand that I will always vote on the side of the fish," Tillion added. "I was here when we had nothing and by God, as long as we stick to putting the fish first, and we'll fight and argue over who gets them later - we'll be a healthy state."
Next, UFA President Joe Childers presented Senator Ted Stevens with a lifetime achievement award. Stevens took the stage to a resounding standing ovation - no boos, catcalls, or shoes thrown by critics, as some had feared. It was Stevens' first public appearance since his court case travesty and industry insiders said he wrote all of his own remarks for the Kodiak event.
"Governor, I am delighted to be here with you - and you all should know that as I travel the south 48, you are the best public relations person we ever had," Stevens said to laughter and wild applause. (Gov. Palin's jaw dropped in pleased surprise.)
"My mind went back to the state legislature. I met Oscar Dyson of Kodiak who came down to talk to legislators. I didn't know much about commercial fishing, but he said the trouble is we have an industry that is dominated by salmon, but there has got to be a lot more fish out there that we can develop into a more diversified industry and economy."
"That was where I learned how to earmark money. (laughter) I earmarked $20,000 to start a study that looked at additional species to be harvested."
Stevens recalled how in January 1970 he flew to St. Paul and counted more than 90 foreign fishing vessels with accompanying catcher boats in nearby waters. At the time foreign vessels could fish three miles and beyond from shore.
"It lit up the sea like a small city," he said, adding that the big boats each had a sort of huge 'garbage disposal' on deck to grind and dump all the unwanted fish.
Stevens recounted how he worked with lawmakers on both sides of the aisle to find ways to stop the pillage of foreign fishing fleets, and worked with the international community as well.
"We had to extend our jurisdiction to 200 miles," Stevens said.
That finally came to pass in 1976 when Congress approved the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act.
"There is no question that Alaska commercial fishermen drove that bill," Stevens said. "We led the world in extending jurisdiction 200 miles off the shores, and there is not a country in the world today that doesn't claim the 200 mile limit. Alaska brought that about, and we did it not for the fishermen, but to sustain the reproductive capability of the fish species."
Sen. Stevens passed on a life lesson he learned when he flew to the Pribilof Islands in 1970.
"There were a bunch of presents for Russian Christmas when we landed at St. George, but no boats could get across to St. Paul. I told them to put the presents on our plane (an Albatross) but they said there was no airport there. I said hell, I landed C47s on roads in China, and you can land this thing on a road over there. The co-pilot refused to go and I said I have a license and we went over and landed the first plane on St. Paul on that trip."
"That trip changed my life because I realized that if you really want to try, and if you are interested in something and devote your time to it, things will snowball and you can really build relationships and attain goals that you originally thought were impossible."