Stevens' Support Remains Strong
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) is not unlike the state he represents: tough as its long winters and often quite as chilly. In his nearly four decades in the Senate, Stevens has done what his constituents have wanted, which is raise a lot of money for The Last Frontier's economic development, including a thriving seafood industry. His impact on the state's highly successful fisheries is indelible. Stevens is also a controversial and powerful politician with a long history of earmarks and other pet projects, but many Alaskans have his back despite the corruption scandal surrounding him.
Stevens, 86, who chairs the Senate Appropriations Committee, was indicted Tuesday for falsely reporting gifts reportedly worth more than $250,000 from contractors who renovated his Alaska home, which federal investigators raided last year. He pleaded not guilty to the charges yesterday in federal court.
The FBI has also focused on his son, Ben Stevens, a former state senator and consultant with ties to fishing groups and seafood companies in Alaska.
The charges against the elder Stevens are dubious, according to one veteran Alaska fisherman, who says the timing is politically motivated. Stevens is running for re-election in November.
"I feel this was a carefully orchestrated setup because of the upcoming election. I firmly believe the charges I heard [Tuesday] morning are ridiculous," says Al Burch, owner of the Dusk and the Dawn, two trawlers that fish for cod, pollock and flatfish out of Kodiak, Alaska. Burch is also the director of the Alaska Whitefish Trawlers Association and sits on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute's whitefish committee. "I think he's going to be found innocent," he adds. "With a grand jury, only one side of the story is presented."
Burch describes Stevens' impact on Alaska fisheries as "absolutely amazing."
"We had absolutely no whitefish come ashore until he started working on that," says Burch. "The Bering Sea alone now has a billion-dollar whitefish industry. And it's directly related to his actions in the past."
Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin says the allegations against Stevens "rock the foundation of our state. Senator Ted Stevens has dedicated his life to the betterment of Alaska."
Regardless of the outcome stemming from these charges, Stevens' seafood legacy should remain intact, as should his support. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) established regional fishery management councils and the important exclusive economic zone (EEZ), which extends from three to 200 miles offshore. Even the fussiest environmental groups like Oceana support the MSA, and other nations have adopted a similar EEZ.
With Stevens' influence, Alaska and sustainable seafood have become synonymous. The MSA is the blueprint for fishery management in the United States, and the rest of the country might be better off following Alaska's lead in conserving and maximizing the potential of its marine resources.
Whether this corruption scandal will harm Stevens' reelection chances remains to be seen. But if he leaves Washington, fishermen would be without their staunchest supporter at a time they can't afford to lose any friends.