KODIAK, Alaska (AP) — Republican U.S. Senate candidate Dan Sullivan got grilled on his positions on fishing issues during a debate Wednesday night with Democratic Sen. Mark Begich in one of the largest fishing ports in the U.S.
Sullivan, who took flak for initially planning to skip the debate to campaign in rural Alaska, sought to show his command of fisheries issues, the focus of the only-in-Alaska debate that is a tradition among politicians in the Last Frontier. Sullivan mentioned his family's fish camp and the need to cut burdensome regulations. He also mentioned Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski, who recently endorsed him and campaigned with him in Kodiak.
Fishing is a multibillion-dollar industry in the state and a major employer.
It was a friendly audience for Begich, who chairs the Senate subcommittee on oceans, atmosphere, fisheries, and Coast Guard and entered the debate with the endorsement of fishing organizations such as the United Fishermen of Alaska and the Alaska Bering Sea Crabbers. At one point, Begich, wearing a gold salmon pin on his lapel, said he wouldn't mind answering some of the questions that were being directed solely to Sullivan.
"Well, Senator Begich, we've heard a lot from you, but we really haven't had an opportunity to question Mr. Sullivan," one of the questioners, fish industry writer Laine Welch, said before asking Sullivan another question.
During the debate, Sullivan was asked about his brother's fish business. He said his brother is a wholesaler who buys farm-raised fish as well as fish from Alaska. Sullivan said he is against genetically modified fish, known as "Frankenfish," a position Begich also holds.
Sullivan said he has never supported the Pebble Mine, a massive gold-and-copper prospect near the headwaters of a world-premier salmon fishery in southwest Alaska. But he said he supports having a process in place for projects like that to be vetted.
Sullivan has said the controversial project should be allowed to go through the permitting process. He and others, including Murkowski and state officials, worry the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will veto the project before it has gone to permitting.
Begich — to applause — called the project the wrong mine in the wrong place.
When Begich said he planned to hold a committee hearing to discuss concerns about Canadian mines and their impacts on Alaska, Sullivan said hearings and letters don't get the job done.
"Face-to-face contact, face-to-face diplomacy, that's what you make an impact on," Sullivan said.
Sullivan also asked why Begich did not hold up the nomination of Sally Jewell for Interior secretary until there was a commitment from President Barack Obama's administration to allow for a road to be built through a wildlife refuge to connect the town of King Cove with an all-weather airport.
Begich noted he wasn't the only member of the delegation who voted to confirm Jewell. Murkowski did, also.
Bohrer contributed to this report from Juneau, Alaska.