A screen grab of Saturday’s debate between Al Gross (lower left) and Dan Sullivan with Rhonda McBride moderating.

Alaska U.S. Senate candidates Dan Sullivan and Al Gross held their first of three debates on Saturday, clashing over issues ranging from fisheries and Pebble Mine to tariffs and Arctic security. The debate, which was streamed online, was hosted by the Kodiak Chamber of Commerce. 

Incumbent Sullivan (R-AK) has served in the Senate since 2014. He says he has worked to increase defense spending, especially by bringing Coast Guard assets to Alaska, and has introduced legislation to clean up the ocean and provide economic help for fishermen impacted by the coronavirus pandemic.

Challenger Gross is an independent candidate who had a successful career as an orthopedic surgeon before deciding to run for Senate. He describes himself as being liberal-leaning on issues like health care and the environment, but more right-leaning on gun rights, fiscal responsibility and immigration. 

Among the contentious issues addressed by the candidates was the development of Pebble Mine, a proposed copper and gold mine that supporters say will bring economic development to Southwest Alaska. Critics say the mine could endanger the environment, affecting sockeye salmon that breed in Bristol Bay and ruining the livelihoods of fishermen there. 

Gross has been a big critic of the mine, which he said threatens the rights of Alaskans who depend on subsistence fishing. During the debate, he hounded Sullivan for not publicly denouncing the project until after the release of recordings in which Pebble executives admit that the project could go for much longer and be much larger than what has been publicly proposed. 

“You’ve had nine years to come (out) against Pebble Mine. ... You waited until you were publicly shamed, and (Pebble Limited Partnership CEO) Tom Collier was caught on tape talking about you hiding in the corner,” Gross said. “You facilitated permitting when you were the commissioner of natural resources and you stood on the sidelines in the corner letting the mine process go ahead.”

Sullivan defended himself by saying that he had come out against the mine in August, before the tapes had been released but after the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced that the project could not be permitted as currently proposed. 

“The mine process did go ahead. I made sure it was rigorous based on science not politics,” Sullivan said. “I made clear it had to go through a process and I'm opposing the Pebble Mine after the process is over. That's the way that all resource development and economic development projects are done in the state.”

The candidates also addressed the increasing Russian presence in the Arctic, and the resulting rise in tensions in the region. 

“One of the big reasons I ran is because the previous administration cut defense spending by 25% and did not take our interests in the Arctic seriously,” Sullivan said. “I made sure that one of our top priorities was to rebuild our military and to come back with a strong Arctic policy. We are doing just that.”

Sullivan said he is working to rebuild the military and supports the construction of Coast Guard icebreakers. He noted that Alaska has seen $1.6 billion invested in military construction. 

“The best way to deal with the Russians in the Arctic is if we have strength,” he said, adding that Gross would enable people who plan to cut funding for the military. 

Gross said he is running for Alaska, which he said “has nothing to do with national politics.”

 He said communication between the Department of Defense and fishermen needs to be improved following incidents in which U.S. fishermen encountered live-fire exercises by the Russian Navy in the Bering Sea’s Exclusive Economic Zone. 

“How about a little communication with fishermen who are fishing at the Exclusive Economic Zone as the Russians increase their presence in the Arctic,” Gross said.

Gross also took a jab at Sullivan for not doing enough to stop the trade war with China, which has resulted in decreased U.S. exports of seafood. 

The debate moderator, Rhonda McBride, said that last year, exports to China were at the lowest level since 2010. The average tariff on seafood going to China was 38% compared to 8% for seafood exports to other countries. 

Gross said that relief funding for fishermen included in recent legislation, although necessary, was an example of how Sullivan is not as fiscally conservative as he claims. Gross said a better solution would be to end the trade war.  

“I sure wouldn't be silent and in the corner when it comes to the trade war with China. I'd be calling the president. I'd be knocking on the door of the Oval Office everyday standing up for Alaska fishermen,” Gross said. He accused his opponent of “hiding” and “not standing up against China.”

Sullivan said China has been using unfair labor practices for decades and commended the administration of President Trump for taking a stand against them. 

“This administration actually standing up and taking on unfair Chinese practices in my view is long overdue,” Sullivan said. 

He said he recognizes that many sectors have been impacted by the trade war, but added that he helped introduce legislation for fishermen negatively impacted by the dispute. 

“We had tariffs that were put on exports coming back from China. I got those removed ... and then historic trade relief that was needed with regard to USDA,” he said. “We are working on relief … and opening markets in other areas where we have had a lot of success from our fishing interests.”

The candidates also spoke about how they would deal with the lack of federal funding for stock surveys in the Gulf of Alaska. Stock surveys are crucial for keeping fisheries sustainable and meeting management standards. 

Sullivan said he has been advocating for increased surveys and said that it was a mistake for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration to cancel the surveys this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I’ve been advocating for consistent surveys. We need actually more surveys. I've been pressing NOAA to make it so we have six regular surveys, not just five,” Sullivan said. “But during COVID, NOAA decided they won’t do surveys. This is a huge mistake. … These surveys are critical and I've been a strong advocate for them.” 

Gross said he also supports survey funding, but reiterated that the surveys were cancelled because of the pandemic, which the country needs to control before moving on. 

“There’s a lot more to come, and this is a very slow-moving tsunami. We need to get a grip on this pandemic first. Of course we need to fund the surveys, that's absolutely critical. I will be a strong supporter of that,” Gross said. 

The candidates also addressed the alarming amount of marine debris affecting Alaska’s coastline. Sullivan said his recent legislation, the Save our Seas Act, addresses ocean cleanup. 

“We are making huge progress on this,” he said. “I brought stakeholders together and I'll continue to lead on this important issue.” 

Gross maintained that Sullivan’s bill did not do enough to clean up the ocean, describing it as a “feel-good bill that had no teeth that funded NOAA to study the problem but did nothing to clean it up.”

Sullivan summed up the debate by saying he will build on his past agenda, which has focused on relief for fishermen and coastal communities, ocean clean-up legislation and investment in the Coast Guard to strengthen Alaska’s ability to take advantage of opportunities in the Arctic.

Gross said he is a hard worker who will work for the Alaskan people. He said he understands the issues because he has lived them. He said Sullivan has failed to take on climate change or take a stance against the Trump administration's trade war. 

“Look around you. Alaska is not better off than we were six years ago,” he said, adding that many fisheries have crashed, the country’s health care is expensive and the administration has failed to properly deal with the pandemic.

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