Sen. Ted Stevens was in Juneau on Friday to pick up the endorsements of eight Alaska fishing organizations, something he called "extremely important" to his reelection bid.
Stevens was federally indicted in July on seven felony charges for allegedly not reporting more than a quarter of a million dollars in gifts from oil executives on Senate disclosure forms. The Senator is facing what some people call his toughest reelection campaign to date during his 40 years in office against popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich.
Stevens said he is appreciative of the continued support from Alaskan fishing groups, which includes Friday's endorsements by the Alaska Seine Boat Owners, Alaska Crab Coalition, Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association, Alaska Independent Tenderman's Association, Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, Western Gulf of Alaska Fishermen, Fishing Vessel Owners Association, and Alaska Scallop Association.
"I don't think anyone has ever had the problem I've got going into election, in terms of a Senate race," Stevens said. "It's a very difficult situation to deal with so the endorsements are absolutely important this year because they're saying that they're going to try to convince their people to continue to vote for me despite these assertions that have been made that are going to be heard in court in the next month."
Stevens pleaded not guilty to the charges and on Friday was adamant about not discussing the indictments, saying he did not want to create the perception of influencing the case.
Robert Thorstenson, executive director of the nonprofit Southeast Alaska Seiners Association, said Stevens has an "unparalleled" voting record when it comes to Alaska fisheries issues, citing the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976 that established the 200-mile fishing boundary off the coasts of the United States. Stevens was instrumental in the formation of the Pacific Salmon Treaty, which was revised earlier this year to extend through 2018, and also worked this year to address the rising costs of fuel for commercial fishermen, Thorstenson said.
"We have major problems with a lot of our boats that can't even go out and afford to go fish," he said. "We know there is one office and one man that can tackle those issues and deal with them successfully as he has in the past with so many other issues in the history of our fisheries."
Julie Hasquet, press secretary for the Begich Campaign, said the Anchorage mayor has been campaigning around the state and meeting with fishermen that are growing increasingly concerned with issues related to fisheries.
"There are major issues that haven't been dealt with that impact Alaska's Fishing families," she said.
Hasquet cited the lack of an energy plan that has resulted in some of the highest fuel costs in the country for Alaskans, a lack of health insurance options for fishermen, and issues surrounding climate change. Begich has proposed "new tax credits for fishing families facing high energy costs this year," according to his campaign Web site.
Hasquet said Begich is still formulating a comprehensive fisheries plan that he will unveil in the next couple of weeks.
"The people on the ground, the working men and women across the state, have a lot of frustration with the lack of progress," Hasquet said.
Stevens said the biggest issue facing fisheries in Alaska presently is the high cost of fuel.
"People up and down the coast have told me they just couldn't pull away from the dock this year," he said. "They could not get the money."
Stevens said this year he proposed an income tax credit for commercial fishermen in order to offset the high cost of fuel and authored a provision to allow fishermen to apply for small loans with the U.S. Dept. of Agriculture that are available to farming communities.
"We're trying in every way we can to find some way to bring down this cost of operation, which is primarily the cost of fuel," he said.
Stevens said he has more work that needs to be done in fisheries, particularly dealing with the illegal, unregulated, unreported vessels fishing off the coasts of the United States, also known as IUU vessels. He said he plans to meet with representatives from the United Nations in the next couple of months to discuss the issue and find a way "to marshal the forces of the world against" IUU vessels, which he says are having a negative impact on Pacific fisheries.
"They're not legal anywhere in terms of the fishing activities but they're owned by international investors," he said. "They are the largest vessels now in the world. They are larger than the Queen Mary, some of them. They are just amazing vessels and they're out there on the high seas and they're just sandpapering the bottom of the ocean."
Contact reporter Eric Morrison at 523-2269 or firstname.lastname@example.org.