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Rep. Mary Peltola on proposing 2 trawling bills, depressed salmon runs, and the Donlin mine project

Mary Peltola has been fishing on the Kuskokwim since she was a child.
Liz Ruskin
Alaska Public Media
Mary Peltola, fishing on the Kuskokwim River in 2022.

Alaska’s at-large United States House Rep. Mary Peltola spoke with KYUK’s Sage Smiley on morning show "Coffee at KYUK" about two bills she recently proposed meant to regulate the trawl industry and reduce bycatch. She also talked about what she’s hearing about fisheries on the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta and her recent amicus brief in support of the Donlin Gold mine development.

Read a rough transcript of the conversation below, which has been lightly edited for clarity and flow:

KYUK (Sage Smiley): Thank you so much for joining me for "Coffee at KYUK," Rep. Peltola.

Rep. Mary Peltola: Thank you for having me Sage. It's good to be back on KYUK.

KYUK: So we're here today, first and foremost, to talk about the two fisheries bills that you recently proposed in the U.S. House. Can you tell us about those bills and what they're meant to do?

Peltola: Yes, I have two bills that that we have submitted. Honestly, I don't expect them to have much traction this Congress. The 118th Congress has not been productive. I think we were record-breaking in this very limited number of bills passed last session. And I think we're on track to be another kind of record-setting year for a limited number of bills passing, but I think it's important that I introduced these bills to get as much support as I can now and really teeing it up for the 119th Congress.

The first bill is called the Bottom Trawl Clarity Act. And what this bill does is it limits bottom trawling and vulnerable ocean by first mandating that each of the fisheries management councils, there's eight of them across the U.S., including the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council, which oversees Alaskan waters. So it mandates at each of these councils that permits the use of any of the bottom trawl gear, it requires them to define the term “substantial” versus the term “limited bottom contact.” I think that words have a lot of meaning, and defining words is a very important step in in fisheries management. The second thing the Bottom Trawl Clarity Act does is it requires a designation of bottom trawl zones, and it limits areas where gear can scrape the sea floor and where that's allowed.

The second piece of legislation is called the Bycatch Reduction and Mitigation Act. And this really is helping Alaskan fishermen who have been working for years now to reduce bycatch. And the two things it does is it authorizes the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA)'s Bycatch Reduction and Engineering program; it appropriates $10 million to that program for five years. Right now, that program has been funded at about $3 million a year, and it just is not putting in the kind of resources that fishermen have really needed to curb bycatch. It also establishes the Bycatch Mitigation Assistance Funds, which will be administered by the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation and used to help fishermen and fishing vessels purchase new gear or technology to reduce bycatch, such as camera systems and lights, and salmon excluders. And it also allows for philanthropists to donate to that Bycatch Mitigation Assistance Fund. I think there are a lot of wealthy donors who are interested in ocean health who want to help. And so this is a way to give wealthy donors a chance to help on bycatch as well. And these have both been very, very well received. I do want to note that just the fact that I was elected to Congress almost two years ago really had industry sit up and take notice, and on their own they have reduced chum bycatch by 50%. And this is really encouraging to me, because it shows that there is the will, on behalf of a number of the harvesters, to reduce their bycatch, and it shows that it can be done and that we can always be doing better.

KYUK: To clarify a couple of things – first of all, in that first bill, what do you hope defining those terms with respect to the level of bycatch will change?

Peltola: Well, we what we have now – what we've seen is that there are trawlers who are using pelagic gear, and that is supposed to be a mid-ocean trawl, it is not supposed to be scraping the bottom. And right now we see, there has been scientific evidence that has shown that that pelagic gear, that midwater trawl gear is actually touching the bottom. And so it's really important for us to get our arms around those words, and what they mean, and how they're applied. So having definitions, being much more clear about what is allowed and what is not allowed, I think will go a long way towards many of our concerns across Alaska. We don't know what goes on on those boats, and I think it will help with a lot of the misperceptions and the reality of bottom trawling.

KYUK: So as you say, in many communities, and in a lot of fisheries organizations, there's been a lot of support for this bill. But within the trawling community, within the trawling industry, they've called it 'unworkable' and 'burdensome.' How would you respond to that claim about these bills?

Peltola: Well, I do think that they are workable because as I said, we've seen a 50% reduction in chum bycatch already. That means that the people who are investing in that gear to evade salmon, it works. And we just need to get more investment so that everyone in the fleet is brought on board and has things like cameras, and different nets, and salmon excluders, the things that have been proven that work, we need to get everybody on board. And with everything, it just takes a few bad actors for the whole industry to be, you know, broad-brush tainted with those practices. And I think this is no exception. I think that there are some people in the fleet who are really serious about reducing bycatch. And then there are others who just don't care. And they're more focused on their quota and their bottom line. And this legislation is saying, ‘No, the entire fleet is going to do this.’ And it is a workable bill.

KYUK: So if, as you mentioned, there's not a ton of hope that you have for these bills to pass in this session, why propose them now?

Peltola: Well, I just think it's a really important next step. There's only so much you can do during a campaign. And I do think it's worthwhile to elevate these issues during a campaign. But then you've got to back it up with proposed legislation and working to get that least legislation passed. Unfortunately, in the democratic process, the system that we're working under, the framework, it's a slow process, and it was designed to be slow. And now with the partisan shift, and being in a campaign year, that adds more hurdles. But, you know, even if it takes a long time, I'm in this for the long haul. The people from Alaska who rely on salmon, we're not going anywhere. The people who rely on halibut and crab and herring, we're not going anywhere. We are still going to be fighting for this for as long as it takes.

KYUK: So, many communities on the Yukon-Kuskokwim (Y-K) Delta benefit from Community Development Quota (CDQ) through Coastal Villages Region Fund (CVRF) or Yukon Delta Fisheries Development Association (YDFDA). How might the application of these bills, if they were to be passed, impact those communities, if at all?

Peltola: I don't, I don't know 100%. I, you know, I'm not good at making predictions, Sage. And one of my frustrations with the press is this constant request for predictions. We live in an unprecedented time where unprecedented things seem to happen every week. So I don't know, I'm not a fortune teller. But I will say there are also a lot of communities on the Kuskokwim and the Yukon, who are not beneficiaries of the CDQ program and are still very reliant on marine-derived nutrients, meaning those migratory fish coming back every year. And this legislation is not – has not been introduced to harm anyone or undermine anybody. I'm really trying to build consensus. And this bill isn't as draconian, it's not as far-reaching as many people [would] like. I mean, this bill actually has been really good at making everyone angry, because the people who are really opposed to industrial trawling feel like it's not nearly enough. That we should just have a piece of legislation that bans all trawling, period, without exception. And then you've got the industrial trawling fleet who wants nothing done. And so this is a middle-of-the-road approach to say, ‘Let's define some things. Let's have all the councils who allow bottom trawling to do a better job defining what words or gear types are, types of fishing, and where it is appropriate to do it and where it's absolutely not appropriate to do it.’ I think this is a really smart and workable middle-of-the-road approach.

KYUK: With respect to other fisheries related issues, we're facing down another summer of severely restricted fishing on both the Yukon and Kuskokwim rivers. What are you hearing from constituents about how you can help with this issue? Of course, as a politician, you can only do so much when it's the rivers and the fisheries and these very complex scientific issues. But what are you hearing from constituents about the fishing season that we're just kicking off here on the Kuskokwim or on the Yukon?

Peltola: Everybody's worried about fishing, especially on the Kusko[kwim] and on the Yukon. We've been living with fish restrictions for 10, 15 years now. And it's very serious. And on the Kuskokwim, we are meeting about 20% of our real need for subsistence harvests. On the Yukon, they are getting 0% of their need for their families. And I just don't think that there's an issue more serious or more impactful to Alaskan households, especially on the Y-K Delta, than fishing and salmon issues. And I would really like to thank the tribal fish commissions because I feel that they have been working to get buy-in from residents and participation in getting as many spawners as we can up to the spawning ground. And I've been really impressed with how management has gone on the Kuskokwim. The Kuskokwim River has met its escapement goal every year except 2013, which was the last year that the [Alaska] Department of Fish and Game managed. And that is better than any other river in the state. And I think instead of suing the federal government, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game should be thanking the commissioners on the Kuskokwim for helping them meet that escapement goal every year and not lowering that goal.

KYUK: Clearly, there's a lot of concern for multiple species of salmon on the Kuskokwim and the Yukon, and in Alaska more broadly. Recently, though, you denounced the potential listing, or the investigation into listing, king salmon as endangered. Could you explain that distinction and how you break that down?

Peltola: So we are concerned, and I've been surprised that the [Alaska] Department of Fish and Game hasn't listed chinook as a species of concern on all the rivers, because I think it is a species of concern on all rivers. Having chinook listed as an endangered species, though, really is the next level and it really can prevent a lot of other things. It could potentially prevent – if we had a really strong chum run, or a really strong – like we've had really strong red runs on the Kusko[kwim]. Having an endangered species listing could prevent us from harvesting chum and reds, which would really put subsistence users in a bind. It's already been hard enough harvesting reds when the chum numbers have been so low and the chinook numbers have been so low. And I don't want to do anything that would further impede households from being able to harvest some amount of salmon.

KYUK: For many people in this region, mining is also intimately tied in with fisheries, and you've recently come out, hoping to really give the final nix to Pebble Mine, but then also an amicus brief with your colleagues in Congress in favor of the development of Donlin. Can you explain that balance and what you're thinking with those decisions?

Peltola: Yeah, and this is, this is a really unfortunate position for me, because I have my own personal beliefs. And then I have to also be the representative for all of Alaska. I'm only one of six members of Congress that represents the entire state. And if Alaska were its own country, it would be the 18th largest country in the world. This is a massive amount of geography to represent. And I really try hard to listen to the people of the region and Calista, this is a Calista project. There hasn't been the kind of unanimous opposition that Bristol Bay really showed on that project. They have been so unanimous in Bristol Bay, both their regional corporation, most of their village corporations, most of their tribes, their whole commercial fleet. And on the Donlin project, it's not that cut and dry. There are very fierce opponents of Donlin. And then there are very fierce advocates for Donlin as well. And that amicus brief spoke to the economic impact the project could have if it's developed. And it's still a long ways away from being developed, it's still very early in the permitting process. If you ask me, it's a long way from having the investment support that it needs. So they're just really different regions, and their different projects and different levels of support for those projects. And that as the sitting representative for the entire state, those are the things that I have to try to measure.

KYUK: As we wrap up this interview kind of focused on all different aspects of fish and fisheries in the state, and from your place as our federal representative, is there anything else you're thinking about that you want to add?

Peltola: No, I'm just, you know, really envious of the people back home experiencing springtime, and I'm hopeful that I'm going to be able to make time to help my father-in-law and his wife fish, and have my teenagers out there with me fishing once the river is open. Nothing makes me happier than fishing and putting away fish for my family.

KYUK: Thank you very much for your time this morning.

Peltola: Thank you so much. I really appreciate your very good reporting. Thank you.

KYUK: Thank you. Thanks so much.

Sage Smiley is KYUK's news director.
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