Two weeks ago, I met Mary Peltola at her election-night watch party in Anchorage. I asked the Democrat, who beat Sarah Palin in a special election for Alaska’s one House seat this week and will become the first Alaska Native in Congress, which issue in her platform most excited her.
“Salmon management and security,” she said. “I’m pro-fish.”
If you’re unsure what it means to be “pro-fish,” you’re not alone. It’s an uncommon identifier in U.S. politics, mainly because fish-related legislation is not a hot-button issue in most parts of the country. But in Alaska, where fishing is both a major jobs-producing industry and an essential mode of subsistence for indigenous Alaskans, people have strong opinions on fish policy.
So, for a Democrat attempting to win an election in a state that went for Trump by 10 points in 2020, emphasizing one’s pro-fish bona fides is a solid strategic move. Peltola’s campaign summarizes her platform as “Fish, Family, & Freedom.”
Peltola, 48, comes by her fish enthusiasm honestly. Her campaign manager told me that, as a Yup’ik child growing up on the Kuskokwim River, the former state legislator started fishing at the age of 6. Her father registered a boat in her name at 12, and she started fishing on her own as a captain at 14. Here’s a recollection Peltola shared in a video interview, filmed when she was a Salmon Fellow with the Alaska Humanities Forum:
I don’t really have one story about salmon from growing up. It’s just spending all summer, and the whole summer is revolving around the king run and the chum run, and then the red salmon run and the silver salmon run, and harvesting salmon and commercial fishing as well. And just everyone working together to put fish away for the winter. That’s how I think of salmon, when I think of salmon.
According to the biography on her campaign website, Peltola also worked as a “herring and salmon technician” for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game while she was in college. And until recently, she served for several years as the executive director of the Kuskokwim River Inter-Tribal Fish Commission, a coalition of tribes in southwestern Alaska that was established to address dwindling salmon returns due to climate change, increased competition, and other factors. In that position, Peltola testified in Congress in support of reauthorizing the Magnuson-Stevens Act, which regulates fisheries in federal waters. She wants to amend it to protect subsistence fishing and place stricter limits on trawlers.
Though she won’t start as a representative in Congress until later this month, Peltola will only serve until the beginning of January. She is finishing the term of Republican Don Young, the Alaska congressman who spent nearly 50 years in office before he died in March.
But Peltola will also spend the next two months campaigning for the next full congressional term, which begins in January. Voters will return to the polls in November for that election, which once again features Peltola, Palin and another Republican—Nick Begich, who has the endorsement of the Alaska GOP—in a ranked-choice race. A fourth candidate will likely come from the Libertarian Party.
This means that Peltola’s campaign is far from over, and she’s leaning even harder on the fish issue as the countdown to November begins. According to a Peltola campaign advisor, she has sent mailers to constituents warning about the foreign and out-of-state corporate trawlers that are destroying salmon hauls for Alaska fishers. Peltola’s website includes an entire page detailing the diminishing salmon runs and the “total ecosystem collapse” that threatens the livelihoods of subsistence fishers and commercial fishers alike.
It can’t be said enough: In Alaska, fish bring strange bedfellows together across party lines.
Because the state relies heavily on federal funding and is deeply affected by federal policies on resource extraction, infrastructure, the military, public lands, and Native issues, candidates running for federal office can often focus on local matters. Federal policies have a lot of local resonance. And because Alaska is one of the least partisan states in the country—there are far more registered independents than Republicans and Democrats combined—it behooves candidates to emphasize positions that appeal to groups with common interests but diverse political leanings, like subsistence fishers and people who work in the fishing industry.
You’ll still hear about plenty of culture-war grievances from Alaska politicians. (Just listen to Palin, who was close to winning this election.) But politicians looking to establish a broad base of support often focus on Alaska-specific policies. Candidates are further encouraged to campaign across party lines by Alaska’s new ranked-choice voting system, which rewards consensus candidates (those who a lot of people believe they can live with) over polarizing ones (those who inspire passionate support and passionate hate in equal measure).
While there are certainly issues related to salmon fishing that map onto partisan ideological agendas, there’s also a lot of common ground. In her ongoing re-election campaign, Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski is making known that she “led the charge against genetically-engineered salmon.” In the 1970s, Young played an important role in passing the original Magnuson-Stevens Act, the legislation Peltola wants to reauthorize and amend today.
Peltola has said that she and Young didn’t agree on everything, but the spirit of the Magnuson-Stevens Act—protecting local fishers and a sustainable supply of fish—was important to both. Frankly, it would probably be tough to find an Alaskan who doesn’t care at all about what it would mean for the state to lose, say, the salmon population that provides nearly half the world’s sockeye supply. It’s both an urgent, critical issue and one that doesn’t inspire the kind of fire-breathing and grandstanding that draws attention from the Lower 48. (Anyone know Donald Trump’s position on salmon?)
That, for Peltola, is much of the point. Fishing isn’t just an industry in Alaska, she told me. It’s a statewide identity—“a unifier across Alaska.”