Governor Walkers looks out over Sitka Sound, as trollers pass by calling for him to not sign a Pacific Salmon Treaty that would further cut Alaska’s allocation. The salmon fleet organized a boat parade and rally to send that message. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Sitka’s salmon fishermen are worried about the state’s strategy for renegotiating the Pacific Salmon Treaty. That’s the document between the United States and Canada that allocates the king salmon harvest across borders and expires at the end of the year. As KCAW’s Emily Kwong reports, the fleet took to the seas yesterday (06-20-18) to send Governor Bill Walker a strong message not to sign “a bad treaty.”

Downloadable audio.

Governor Bill Walker’s agenda in Sitka was pretty straightforward: meet with the mayor, speak at a conference, hold a campaign rally. He expected that. What he wasn’t expecting, was this.

(Fireworks crackle)

(Fishermen chanting: Let us fish! Let us fish!)

Three dozen fishing vessels are parading along Sitka Sound on a blazing, sunny day. They’re blaring boat horns and shooting off fireworks. Perched on the bow, troller Cavan Pfeiffer has an orange traffic cone against his mouth, a makeshift megaphone. He shouts, “Governor Walker! We need you! Stand up!”

Aboard F/V Sword, troller Caven Pfeiffer used a traffic cone to amplify his voice. He shouted, “Governor Walker! We need you! Don’t forget about Southeast.” Another troller simply shouted, “This treaty is killing us Governor.” (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Salmon fisherman are worried the Governor will agree to a Pacific Salmon Treaty that deepens cuts to Alaska’s king salmon fishery. Standing with a group of conservationists and fisherman to greet the Governor’s vehicle, Eric Jordan said, “It’s a tough time for trollers.”

“There are things going on out here in the ocean. I fished all morning, got up at 3 a.m. in the morning and was out there in the fog and stuff for one fish,” he said.

King salmon populations are crashing across Alaska and no one knows why for sure. In response, the Board of Fish passed a conservation plan for Southeast in January and limited fishing at certain rivers. While Jordan supports those measures, he said he and other trollers cannot afford to lose more fish. “We’re willing to make the sacrifices written into the treaty. But we’re not willing to just arbitrarily have our share reduced,” he said.

Sitka troller and former Board of Fish member Eric Jordan calls for Governor Bill Walker’s leadership on this issue. Walker told him he’s been talking with Commissioner Sam Cotten and said, “I’m here to say hello and hear your concerns.” (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Alaska’s negotiation team does not consider a reduction arbitrary. ADF&G Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton told trollers and processors at a Chinook Symposium in Sitka last month that the proposed cuts were carefully negotiated with Canada, as part of a strategy to protect endangered stocks in Washington state’s Puget Sound — and to avert a potential federal takeover of the fishery under the Endangered Species Act.

While Sitka trollers are on board with taking their share of cuts to protect fish runs in this region, they’re tired of taking the fall for problems elsewhere. The Sitka Conservation Society’s Heather Bauscher said the state needs to prioritize Alaskan interests. “Where are the positives? What are the things that are being done to support this region?,” she asked.

After arriving by car, Walker took in the whole scene. He waved to the vessels, listening to the words being shouted from the decks. He stood in the street and spoke with the group assembled. He told them, “We’re going to try to get the best deal that’s available. I’m known for doing bold things and so I’m not a very good follower of this is the way we’ve done it in the past necessarily.”

Walker did not elaborate on what that meant, but lingered looking at the water for a few minutes more. We then walk into a restaurant, where there’s a single customer eating a buttered scone. It’s Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott. 

Walker greets him heartily and they confer on the boats still circling the harbor outside. Walker said he’s keeping an open mind on the Pacific Salmon Treaty as treaty negotiations are still ongoing.

“Well, I have nothing to sign at this point. What I like to do before I make any decisions on anything is I like to hear from all different sides of it. So, that’s the beauty of being in Sitka today and the graciousness of those who have come out to express their opinion. I celebrate that,” Walker said.

Governor Bill Walker and Lieutenant Governor Byron Mallott wave to the troll fleet demonstrating in Sitka Sound. The pair are running for re-election as independents, in a race with competitors on the left and the right. Elections are November 6th. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

What Walker is not celebrating is a potential trade war with China. News broke of China’s retaliatory tariffs on American goods on Friday (06-15-18), including 25% on seafood imports — though not to secondary processing. Walker will meet with U.S. Department of Commerce next week to illustrate what a blow this would be to Alaska’s seafood industry and plans for a natural gas pipeline.  

“We have probably the largest trade opportunity with China from the United States and that’s in our liquefied natural gas. That’s about an $8 to $10 billion dollars export per year and we believe there’s about 100 years of supply. That’s about a trillion dollars,” Walker estimated.

Fresh last month’s trade visit to China, Walker believes a deal between the two nations can be brokered before the tariffs take effect.  “I think there’s a deal to be made. I really do. And I think Alaska could likely be a part of the deal,” he said.

Walker said he and Mallott also sent a message to the White House, calling for an end the practice of separating children from their parents at the U.S./Mexico border. The Congressional Delegation has spoken out as well. Walker called the separations “intolerable.” Mallott spoke to the history of Alaska Native children being separated from their parents to attend boarding school.  

“I was one of those and as a young person, you don’t think about the anguish and grief that just had to have caused your parents. Now to reflect upon it, it almost takes me to my knees. So I understand fully what’s at stake here,” Mallott said.

Ellie Green naps in her stroller, donning a Stand for Salmon hat — a campaign to protect spawning habitat. It’s been a perfect storm of challenges for salmon fishermen and processors in Southeast: low returns and changing ocean conditions, restrictions made at the state level, and now, the potential for seafood tariffs in China. (Emily Kwong/KCAW photo)

Walker listens intently to Mallott talk about this. The two men had an usual road to statewide public office, merging on an independent ticket in 2014. They speak in turns about the tough choices they’ve had to make and how their professional relationship has only grown. Walker said, “We chose each other. We weren’t an arranged marriage as a result of an election or a primary. We chose each other and we remain that way.”

They’re entering this election season with the raceway crowded. Former Senator Mark Begich filed to run as a Democrat, which means voters will have choices on the left and the right — led by former Lieutenant Governor Mead Treadwell and former state senator Mike Dunleavy. As an independent, Walker said they’ll have to work harder to win a three-way race. But his strategy is to shoot down the middle with a bipartisan message. He said, “We’ll continue to be who we are.” 

An earlier version of this story said there were two dozen troll vessels in the water. That number was closer to three dozen.