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Proposal to add tribal representatives to state seafood task force sinks in the House

Gavel Alaska
Rep. CJ McCormick (D-Bethel) debates an amendment to add tribal representatives to a state seafood industry task force at the Alaska State Capitol in Juneau on April 25, 2024.

At the start of the legislative session in January, Rep. Conrad "CJ" McCormick, D-Bethel, hosted leaders of tribal entities from across the state for a special presentation. The topic: meaningful Alaska Native representation on state boards and commissions.

“I'm sitting there as a rural representative and I'm like, ‘Oh yeah, this is common sense,’” McCormick said. “But once the committee was over, you kind of recognize a lot of other reps around the state, they don't actually have that kind of interaction with tribal entities. And so to them, it really was a real learning experience.”

McCormick, who is non-Native, said that he came away from the House Tribal Affairs Committee presentation motivated to generate greater awareness of the issue.

“I think the biggest point to take away from the presentation was the fact that the tribes are co-sovereign governments. Tribes are recognized in our state government, and need to be part of the conversation, and need to be given their proper authority in decision-making,” McCormick said.

In April, McCormick found an opportunity to spur that conversation when the House Fisheries Committee he sits on took up a bill to establish a task force examining the severe economic crisis facing Alaska’s seafood industry.

But an amendment by McCormick to add three tribal representatives to the task force quickly became a political hot potato, drawing the criticism of Rep. Kevin McCabe, R-Big Lake.

“I think that there needs to be representation from all facets of the industry, but where do we end?” McCabe asked. “There's a huge number of Filipinos in Kodiak working on the canneries, maybe we should put Filipinos on here. Where are we going to stop that?”

McCormick pushed back at the suggestion that the amendment had anything to do with race.

“First of all, tribe does not necessarily indicate Alaska Native. Tribe is, in fact, a political subdivision. It is a government entity. So this statement that it's a racial designation, that’s inaccurate,” McCormick said. “And frankly, I have to ask members who don't want to support this, what are you afraid of? Because I feel like we've argued ourselves out of representation.”

McCabe retorted that designating tribal seats would ultimately be redundant. He asked McCormick, “What are you afraid of?”

“Are you afraid that they're going to be excluded? Because I think that tribes and the villages are a major part of our fishery,” McCabe said.

“It’s history, that's what I'm afraid of,” McCormick responded. “We have set a precedent that we do not acknowledge tribes unless it is on the books. And so as much as I would like to take the word of this body that there will be tribal representation, there's a lot of history that says that that will not happen.”

Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, joined McCabe in questioning the need for tribal seats on the task force.

“I'm interpreting the resolution to be more of a focus on the marketing and the issues of marketing the seafood,” Stutes said. “I don't think that it's limited to Native, non-Native processors or fishermen. I think it's all of us together. I think the Native population should be involved, and will be involved, and has every opportunity to be involved.”

In the end, Rep. Stutes voted to move the bill out of committee. While the Senate version of the bill called for seven task force members, the total on the House side swelled to 19, with McCormick’s amendment intact.

Soon after, Rep. McCormick’s office sent out a press release declaring a milestone for tribal representation in Alaska.

But when the bill came to the House floor on May 11, a last-minute amendment introduced by Rep. Stutes slashed the total number of members to eight. Not only tribal representatives, but also representatives of commercial harvesters, processors, and seafood-reliant communities failed to make the cut, with near-unanimous support in the House.

“I could kind of notice some of the individuals who had voted for the amendment in the fisheries committee, like, kind of articulated to me in one way or another that they weren't going to support it anymore,” McCormick said. “Just in that time between leaving Fisheries and being on the House floor I kind of got the gist that it was a done deal. Because frankly, that's just kind of been my experience thus far as a rural representative.”

Now, the bill that the legislature sent to the governor’s desk calls for a seafood industry task force simply made up of four members of the Senate and four members of the House.

By early 2025, the task force will deliver its findings and recommendations for dealing with a worsening crisis for the $6 billion Alaska seafood industry.

A designated voice weighing in on behalf of Alaska tribes will be absent from the task force seafood discussion, but McCormick said that he isn’t dissuaded. If re-elected in November, he said that one of his priorities next session will be to push for a designated tribal representative on the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

Evan Erickson is a reporter at KYUK who has previously worked as a copy editor, audio engineer and freelance journalist.
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