A Q&A with Frances Leach, who was named executive director of the United Fishermen of Alaska in November 2017.
What drew you to the United Fishermen of Alaska?
UFA has been a part of my family for as long as I can remember. My father, Leonard Leach, is a lifetime member of UFA and former UFA president. I grew up fishing with my him and watching him be very active in fisheries politics. I was always fascinated how much time he put into fighting for his profession on his off-season. If he wasn’t participating in a fishery, he was attending meetings combating issues. When I was a teenager, I informed my dad I wasn’t interested in college and told him I wanted to be a fisherman. He said he didn’t think that would be the best use of my skills and told me to “get an education and then get a job that keeps fishermen fishing.” I’ve never forgotten those words, and when this job opened up, I decided it was my opportunity to do what my dad wished for me over 25 years ago.
What are some immediate and long-term challenges facing UFA?
There’s a lot of talk of graying of the fleet. There’s discussion over whether or not this is actually happening. I believe it is — but not for the reasons being debated. I believe where the graying is occurring is younger fishermen are not getting involved in fisheries politics. Many of them are not aware that they need to work just as hard off the boat as they do on it. I spent five years working for the Alaska Board of Fisheries, and I noticed the fishermen who attend these meetings are mostly 60 years and above. They are not going to be around forever to advocate for their fisheries, and if no one is there to step up and take their place or join fishing organizations like UFA that lobby for them, younger fishermen may wake up and find their fishery is gone. We need young fishermen to understand their job isn’t limited to the boat.
What changes are happening at UFA?
In February, we elected new officers. Matt Alward, a seiner out of Homer and owner of Bulletproof Nets became our president, replacing Prince William Sound gillnetter Jerry McCune. Bob Kehoe, the executive director of Purse Seine Owner’s Association replaced Matt Alward as our vice president. I came onboard in January, so I’m still getting my feet wet and catching up to speed. Mark Vinsel, former executive director, is still at UFA in an administrator role. His steady hand and historical knowledge of UFA has been extremely valuable for assisting with seamless changes at the helm.
What success stories do you wish people knew more about?
So much of the work we do at UFA is behind the scenes work, putting out fires before they become five-alarm emergencies. Much of this work is at the legislative level, lobbying and alerting our members and member groups of upcoming issues that may have snuck under their radar in the legislative process. UFA is located across the street from the capital building, allowing us easy access to legislators and making it possible for us to easily attend fisheries committees and hearings impacting commercial fishermen.
What gives you hope for UFA?
We are gearing up to face some major issues as a commercial fishing industry, and my hope is younger fishermen will soon realize they need to step up to the plate and start being advocates for their livelihoods. UFA is ready to guide younger fishermen in the process, keep them informed, and get them involved.
Phil Daniels, a former executive director of UFA used to say: We can accomplish anything we want if we stick together. I echo these sentiments. My goal for UFA is to be stronger as a united front. We may not agree on every issue, but if we can pull together to combat issues that directly impact us all, we are a force to be reckoned with.
How can fishermen become more involved in UFA?
Fishermen can become members by visiting our website and signing up. They can also call our office, and we’d be happy to put a membership form in the mail or take membership over the phone. If they are already a member of one of our member organizations, they can make sure to give input to their UFA member representative to relay to our board. I understand membership dues add up, and in this economy it’s financially burdensome to become a member of multiple fishing organizations. My suggestion is to become a member of two organizations — your regional fishery organization and UFA. UFA lobbies and represents fisherman at a statewide and national level. We are on the front lines of fisheries politics, and we pride ourselves on keeping our members informed of issues. I’ll be at Fish Expo, and I am looking forward to meeting members and prospective new members, as well as hearing from folks what we can do for them.