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A Chat with Stephanie Madsen
Stephanie Madsen is one of the most powerful leaders in the commercial fishing industry today. In this male-dominated world, she holds two very prestigious positions; she is vice president of the Pacific Seafood Processors Association (PSPA)and chairwoman of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council (NPFMC).
Madsen is the first woman to lead the NPFMC. Her peers have unanimously nominated her to the position of “madam chair” for two consecutive terms. She is also the first woman to become vice president of Pacific Seafood Processors Association, a position she accepted nearly six years ago.
Madsen and I met in Juneau on a snowy, January day to talk about how this Ohio girl, who graduated from the University of Arizona with a teaching degree, developed into a highly regarded professional woman who has maintained her integrity and warm, Midwestern spirit.
Let’s start with the big picture on how you came to Alaska and ended up in the world of commercial fisheries.
Well, I first came up in 1971, between my junior and senior year in high school, to work for my aunt and uncle who owned an air-taxi business in Cordova. I continued doing that all through college summer breaks. My aunt and uncle mainly served fishermen in the Copper River Flats area, so I got to know a lot of fishermen. That’s also where I met my husband, Tom. He was a pilot working for them at the time; we fell head-over-heels in love.
After being married for a few years, in 1978, Tom and I moved to Kodiak. He worked flying, mostly spotting for herring or salmon, and I got a job substitute teaching. Then in 1980 he got a job offer flying in Dutch Harbor. In Dutch, I started working for Icicle Seafoods as an expediter; it was the final years of the king crab days. When king crab bottomed out in ’82 and ’83, Icicle pulled out of Dutch. Well, we really loved the community so we stayed.
Tom began his own flight service business and I began a business as a personal expediter for the groundfish fishermen, similar to what I did at Icicle. I took care of all their logistics: getting engine and gear parts, making reservations, setting up appointments, you name it. Fishermen would call me on the single sideband radio from the fishing grounds, and I took care of making sure everything was setup for them when they got to town. As the groundfish industry grew, with joint ventures and foreign and factory trawlers, my business grew and my understanding of the industry grew.
Because so many of my contacts and so much of my work was for the offshore fisheries industry, I was not a real proponent of the on-shore side. Then in 1992, Dick Pace from UniSea, one of three onshore plants in Dutch, hired me to tell their story. That’s when I became educated about the importance of the onshore facilities.
Then in 1999, Rick Lauber retired and I filled his position as vice president of PSPA here in Juneau. We’ve had an office in Juneau for 30 years, and the association has been around since 1914. I am pleased to have the opportunity to be the first woman officer.
How did you get involved in and learn about the public policy and political side of the industry?
I got into local politics through the Dutch Harbor City Council and became heavily involved. You couldn’t pay for the education that I got through my work on the city council: budgets, legal battles and working with attorneys, lobbying legislators and going to Washington DC to lobby congress, learning parliamentary procedure, following issues through, and learning to speak in public and becoming articulate.
One of the most important lessons I learned was that “facts and figures explain, but passion persuades.” Anyone can read a document and get the figures, but it takes the extra passion to convince someone, and somewhere along the line, I got the passion. I think living in Kodiak, Cordova, and Unalaska you get very defensive for long-term sustainability.
So much of the local politics is tied to fisheries. I learned a lot just living in Unalaska for 18 years and being involved in the groundfish fisheries transitions and building that infrastructure. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I didn’t have those experiences.
How did you first get involved with the North Pacific Fishery Management Council?
In 1993 there was an opening on the Advisory Panel for NPFMC. Then in 1996, I became vice chair of the panel. As vice chair, I had to take minutes and then present and explain the Advisory Panel position to the Council. When they had questions about how or why the panel arrived at a certain position, I had to explain the background and articulate the answer. So, I really got to know the issues and also learned to put aside my personal views and represent a group. Then in 2001, Governor Knowles appointed me to the council and when my term was up in 2004, Governor Murkowski reappointed me for a second term. In 2003, Chairman Dave Benton was not reappointed and that’s when I was chosen to serve as the first woman chair of the Council. This last October, they re-elected me chair for another year. I feel quite honored that they did that.
What special qualities do you think you possess that have allowed you to realize these achievements?
I think that I’m a good listener and I really strive to find consensus – find that middle ground. People also feel that I’m approachable and feel comfortable presenting ideas and making their case. I’m also a real process person and defender of the Council system. I believe that if you are true to the process you will achieve the greatest results. Senators Magnuson and Stevens knew what they were doing in 1976 when they passed the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act to oversee management of the nation's offshore fisheries. The process they outlined works. It’s a very transparent public process that allows opportunity to express opinions. We also have great science behind the decision making process; it’s a very good basic system.
What other personal abilities have contributed to your success?
I’m blessed with an ability to talk. You have to be able to express yourself, explain and develop motions, argue the points and be comfortable speaking in public. I have passion for the issues and I do my homework. People may not always agree with me, but they always admit that I did my homework. I think that public officials have an obligation to explain why they have a certain opinion based on the facts.
In turn, how do you think these successes have contributed to your life in general?
I’ve really been able to build and grow through all my experiences. It’s given me confidence and developed critical thinking skills. Critical thinking for anyone in a policy position is essential if you’re going to be effective. You have to be able to look at data, draw conclusions, and ask the right questions to gain more information.
How have others contributed to your life?
I’ve had tremendous support from family and friends and that really is so important. I lost my husband Tom in a flight accident; it’ll be three years ago this April. Tom was not a public person, but he was always proud of my accomplishments. Also, people like Dick Pace saw potential in me. Everyone has mentors that believe in you – believe that you have skills – that say “sure you can” even when you are not so sure yourself. I’ve had a lot of people around me who had confidence in me and kept pushing. There are still people around keeping me straight. The Council staff is great. It’s a pleasure to work with skilled professionals, and we have them at all levels on the staff. We are a real team here in Alaska.
How has the gender ratio changed in the fishing industry over the last 10 to 20 years?
It’s a slow change. Hazel Nelson and I are the only two women on the 15-member NPFMC. However, women are really becoming a part of the organizations. There are a number of women representing fishing organization or serve as industry advocates. We also now have a few more women in technical and operational positions and that’s a good thing.
But even though it’s a male-dominated industry, I’ve never felt that I wasn’t accepted or treated equally. I have always thought that I’ve gotten a clean shake. I don’t think it’s an industry that is biased toward women, and I don’t really see any resistance in changing. There’s no glass ceiling. I think it’s just an evolutionary process, and over time women are becoming interested in taking different roles. Someday we will have a woman Fish and Game commissioner.
What unique perspectives or qualities do you think women have to offer the industry?
The ability to find the middle ground; to look at areas where there is no disagreement and build from there. I’m not so sure it’s a female thing, but it’s parenting skills. Looking for those win-win situations, and picking your battles so that you make sure you win those long-term critical issues that really affect lives.
How have you been able to provide influence and help other women?
Certainly having a model is helpful and being involved in the Women’s Fisheries Network (WFN). The WFN raises funds and provides scholarships and promotes women in the industry. Also, being available and willing to share what I know. I’ve received so much from others and from those city council days that I really try to give some of it back by being open and sharing what I’ve learned. I also spend time at the high school and explain what NPFMC does, and other women and girls see that and hopefully get inspired.
What have been your greatest accomplishments?
I’m very proud of the respect that I’ve gotten from people and their confidence in me, that they are willing to allow me to represent them and be a spokesman. I’m proud that people think I do a good job and that my Council peers reappointed me to the chair. It’s an exciting time – all the stars have aligned to make it possible for me right now. My children are now 19 and 22 – independent adults. I have time right now to really be devoted to my work.
What are the greatest challenges or issues facing the industry right now?
The big issue for next year is the reauthorization of the Magnuson-Stevens' Act. Also, how congress reacts to the Oceans Commissions Report. We continue to move down the path in reducing bycatch and understanding long-term species such as rockfish, working on ecosystem-based approaches for management to have the best long-term strategies in place to provide resource sustainability. We have a lot of good science out there but we always want more, and as we learn more – incorporating that knowledge into management plans.
It’s also a challenge keeping young people interested in fisheries career opportunities. Fisheries isn’t just fishing or the factory slime line, and we have to get that message across. There are a lot of jobs out there in the industry: environmental science and compliance jobs, public relations, cooks and maintenance crews. There are tremendous opportunities in marketing and human resource work in keeping this industry that historically and currently is so vital. We need to convey that feeling of pride and passion to those who may not see or share it.
I think that it’s really important right now to be able to put aside individual differences and stand united to protect stocks. The fishing industry has a reputation for being controversial. We need to make sure we are not so busy fighting among ourselves that we lose sight of the big picture. We are getting better at it, but in some arenas we need to agree to disagree internally and hold hands to communicate the big issues. We need to move forward as a whole and convey a united position on a national level to protect our future fisheries.
For more information see: Pacific Seafood Processors Association at http://www.pspafish.net/
North Pacific Fishery Management Council at http://www.fakr.noaa.gov/npfmc/about.htm
Women’s Fisheries Network http://www.fis.com/wfn/
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1255 W. 8th Street
Juneau, AK 99811-5526