Alaska Gov. Dunleavy passes over tribal advocate for fishery council post, fueling calls for change

Criticism of Dunleavy's nomination to the North Pacific Fishery Management Council is a sign of the growing polarization and high stakes in Alaska fish politics amid historic crashes in salmon stocks.

Alaska Gov. Dunleavy passes over tribal advocate for fishery council post, fueling calls for change

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Some tribal and subsistence advocates are criticizing GOP Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s nomination of a rural fisheries executive for an influential federal management post — another sign of the rising polarization and stakes in Alaska fish politics amid historic crashes in salmon stocks.

Dunleavy last week announced Rudy Tsukada as his preferred nominee for an open seat on the North Pacific Fishery Management Council. That’s the entity that oversees the huge harvests of Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska crab and whitefish stocks worth hundreds of millions of dollars — and that’s under pressure to reduce accidental catches of king and chum salmon, species that have all but disappeared from the Kuskokwim and Yukon rivers in Southwest Alaska in recent years.

Tsukada is chief operating officer for Coastal Villages Region Fund, one of six Community Development Quota, or CDQ, groups established by U.S. Congress three decades ago.

The nonprofit CDQ groups play a unique role in Alaska fisheries and politics. They received whitefish quota when the program was established in the 1990s, so they participate in the trawl fisheries that have accidental catches of Southwest Alaska salmon stocks.

But the CDQ groups are also charged with creating economic development and providing social benefits for Western Alaska residents — and supporters say that mission makes the groups’ leaders responsive to the regional crisis that’s developed amid closures of subsistence and commercial salmon fisheries.

Supporters of Tsukada’s nomination note that Dunleavy passed over other candidates that included an employee of Trident, a for-profit seafood company with investments in the Bering Sea and Gulf of Alaska trawl fisheries.

Tsukada is “very knowledgeable about the offshore fisheries,” and he’s “very concerned” about bycatch, said Robin Samuelsen, a tribal leader who once served on the North Pacific council and now chairs the board of the Bristol Bay Economic Development Corp., another CDQ group.

“Give Rudy a chance, and the proof will be in the pudding,” Samuelsen said in a phone interview this week. “I think Rudy will make a good choice.”

Others, however, say Dunleavy missed a chance to add a new perspective to the council — none of whose current members represent a tribal entity.

An array of tribal- and subsistence-focused groups, along with the Bering Sea Crabbers, had pushed the nomination of Mellisa Maktuayaq Johnson, who’s Iñupiaq and works as government affairs and policy director for the Arctic-Yukon-Kuskokwim Tribal Consortium.

“The governor appoints whoever he wants. But clearly, I would have preferred Mellisa Johnson, because she has been a very knowledgeable person that cares for all of the salmon species throughout Western Alaska,” said Mike Williams, a tribal chief and subsistence fisheries advocate from the village of Akiak on the Kuskokwim River.

Williams has testified to the council that in 2021, he caught just two chum salmon — compared to the 2,000 he would once catch in a typical year to feed his sled dogs.

Williams and others say the salmon crashes in Southwest Alaska threaten the existence of the region’s communities, which depend on fish harvests both for cash income and for feeding families.

Tsukada, who outside of his work with CVRF is known as an avid kayak fisherman, declined to be interviewed. But in an email, he said he thinks his own experience with subsistence, recreational and commercial fisheries “will be an asset to the council.”

“My goals will be to ensure all stakeholders are heard and their views are fairly considered, and to support the sustainable management of Alaska fisheries for current and future generations,” Tsukada wrote.

Other critics of Tsukada’s nomination said that it underscores the urgency of federal legislation, supported by Democratic U.S. Rep. Mary Peltola, that would add two tribal seats to the council.

“There’s still no equitable representation,” Johnson said in a phone interview. “There is no one on that body that knows where I’m coming from when it comes to these crises. They can study all day long, they can have a PhD, they can be a CEO, whatever the title is. But if they cannot produce a tribal ID card or a BIA card, then, realistically, they don’t know.”

A spokesman for Dunleavy, Grant Robinson, declined to comment in response to questions about whether the governor supports the proposal to expand the council’s membership, and about why Johnson was not included as one of Dunleavy’s three nominations. In addition to selecting Tsukada as his preferred nominee, the governor also advanced two employees of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game as alternative candidates.

In his letter to U.S. Commerce Secretary Gina Raimondo, who will choose from the three names advanced by the governor, Dunleavy said that Tsukada would provide “balanced and insightful experience” to the council and “contribute greatly to fisheries management and conservation in the North Pacific.”

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