Alaska’s greatest gift, Pt. 2


The good-old days, or not, of Alaska fishing/WikiMedia Commons

This is part two of a four part series: the fall and rise of Alaska fisheries.

For those who came of age or arrived in Alaska after the start of the new millennium, it might seem like the 49th state has been the salmon capital of the world forever. But that isn’t the case. The reality is that Alaska commercial salmon fisheries floundered badly in the 1960s, and by the start of the 1970s it was looking like the commercial fishing business in Alaska might die.

Commercial fishermen had by then come close to fishing out one of the greatest salmon resources in the world. It was a classic story, another chapter in the tragedy of the commons.

With some help from unfriendly environmental conditions, too many people killing too many fish had crushed the north’s wild salmon runs.

The entire catch of sockeye salmon in Cook Inlet in 1971, the year before limited entry, totaled 655,00 fish. Imagine that. It is almost hard to believe how things have changed.

Commercial fishermen in the Inlet this year caught almost that many sockeye over one five-day stretch in July on their way to a season-long catch of about 2.6 million of the fish.

Cook Inlet’s 2016 commercial sockeye catch, which represented a decent year for commercial fishermen but by no means a great one, was more than twice the all-species catch of 1.6 million Chinook, chum, coho, pink and sockeye salmon in the Inlet in ’71. And almost half of the ’71 catch – 784,000 salmon – was low-value pinks.

That ’71 catch was valued at $12.5 million in inflation corrected dollars. The Cook Inlet fishery is now worth more than $30 million per year despite a massive devaluation of salmon worldwide due to the production of farmed fish, a relatively new phenomenon.

Value changes

Alaska’s commercial salmon were a still precious commodity in the 1970s. Salmon fish farms were only beginning to experiment with growing salmon in Norway, Scotland, Chile and elsewhere. Essentially the only salmon available were wild fish caught off Alaska, Canada or the Pacific Northwest.

Even Japanese hatcheries, which pioneered modern salmon ranching, were in their infancy. Average Japanese production from 1959-1970 averaged only about 1.4 million fish. It’s now up around 20 million salmon per year. And global fish farming has exploded.

More than two out of every three salmon eaten in the world today will be a farmed salmon. As University of Alaska Anchorage economic Gunnar Knapp has observed, farmed salmon “fundamentally transformed world salmon markets.” Alaska banned fish farming in 1990 and closed the door on what might have proven a lucrative economic opportunity thinking it could stop the growth of market competition.

It didn’t work.

Alaska wild fish are today a niche product promoted for growing wild before being killed. They are the free-ranged chickens of the fish market. They are sold as tastier and environmentally friendlier because of their wild nature, but they cannot avoid the downward pressure the competition between fish farms imposes on price.

Luckily, Alaska commercial fishermen have largely been spared from the downward pressure of in-state fishing competition because of limited entry while professional state fisheries management has radically upped the productivity of Alaska wild salmon fisheries since the 1970s.

The limited-entry gift Jane and Joe Average Alaska voted commercial fishermen back in 1972 has proven greater than anyone imagined back then, but it wasn’t the only gift average Alaskans gave commercial fishermen. Jane and Joe also paid to rebuild the fisheries.

The money Alaskans spent to do that now seems as forgotten as the history of limited entry itself. It was drowned in the flood of oil-tax money that started to fuel state government in the 1980s.

That was the year the Alaska income tax was eliminated and oil largely picked up the costs of managing salmon and almost everything else. But up until then, average Alaskans were pulling the load for a fishing business that has rarely paid enough in taxes to cover the costs required to keep it from fishing itself straight back to the bad old days of the ’60s and ’70s.

Citizen largesse didn’t stop with funding management changes either.

Between 1976 and 1980, Alaska voters approved $80 million in bonds – a huge chunk of money in Alaska at the time – to fund hatcheries. Those hatcheries laid the ground work for a whole new fishery in Prince William Sound.

Before hatcheries, commercial fishermen in the Sound netted, on average, 3.3 million fish per year from 1951 to 1979. The average catch is now seven times as high.

Alaska has been good to commercial fishermen, about a quarter of whom now live Outside the 49th state and visit only to fish. Limited entry has made some of them wealthy, but none of them – whether they live outside the state or in – much like the idea of sharing the bounty with Jane and Joe Average Alaskan.

Fish wars

Past efforts to shift some of  Alaska’s fishery harvests from commercial fisheries back to the general public have invariably resulted in bitter fish fights. These have usually ended, or at least reached a truce, with little changed.

The 98-2 split between commercial and everyone else’s share has remained pretty much the same for two decades. Even rural subsistence fishermen, who were granted a fishing priority under the terms of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act (ANILCA) in 1980, have had to struggle to gain share.

The federal government, which is legally bound to protect the subsistence interests of “rural” Alaskans, was forced to intervene in 1990 to take over management on the state’s major rivers. Alaska that year became the first and only state where the federal government manages fisheries outside of the boundaries of national parks and refuges.

Twenty-six years later, it remains the only state where that is the case. It’s not hard to see why.

While the feds were ensuring a fisheries “priority” for rural Alaskans in 1990, the state was working to eliminate the subsistence priority for most other Alaskans. A year earlier, the Alaska Supreme Court had ruled that the state’s subsistence law applied to all Alaskans, and in 1990 the state Board of Fisheries dutifully turned the Kenai River personal-use dip net fishery into a subsistence fishery.

Within two years, however, the Alaska Legislature had granted the board authority to create “non-subsistence areas,” and the Kenai was quickly so designated. The subsistence fishery with its priority on salmon was eliminated in favor of a personal-use fishery with no priority.

Commercial fishermen would have liked to have seen the dip net fishery killed, but it survived and appears to be moving front and center as a new winter battle shapes up between the haves and the have-nots of Alaska fishing.

Both sides have valid reasons to be angry.

On the one hand, average Alaskans have largely given up control of a public resource and shifted public money toward management of that resource almost solely to benefit commercial fishermen. They can legitimately argue it is about time they are due some payback.

On the other hand, commercial fishermen have made business investments based on the old, implied promise that limited-entry would set up a system to ensure commercial-fishery profitability. Some of those business operate on thin margins and really can’t afford to lose a dime.

The state could have avoided all this in the 1970s by setting up fisheries leases, but it wanted a simple system. The answer was to hand out permits to fishermen who could prove their fishing experience, and then leave it to the fishermen to buy and sell those permits as they wanted going forward.

There has been a lot of permit trafficking going on since the 1970s, and it has not all been good for the state, especially rural Alaska. When University of Alaska Anchorage economist Gunnar Knapp and others examined the Bristol Bay fishery in 2010, they found that about 54 percent of the driftnet permits there (1,005 out of 1,850) had moved out of Alaska.

Bristol Bay drift permits are among the most valuable in the state. Knapp, in an interview, said that in general there is an income level somewhere in the high, middle-income range where limited entry permit holders stay in Alaska. Below that level, he said, permits start to shift to Outside resident who come north to commercial fish recreationally in the summer, and above that level are some so-called “high liners” who can afford to live just about anywhere they want.

The Kenai Peninsula at the backdoor of Alaska’s largest city has been lucky that the commercial fishermen who live there largely fall within the class of fishermen who stay in Alaska. About 80 percent of the permits to fish the Inlet are owned by Alaskans or appear to be owned by Alaskans.

Residency is a touchy issue with Alaskans, some of whom don’t much like “Outsiders” as everyone not from Alaska is called. Some people have been known to falsely claim residency to fit in or up their Alaska cred. Roland Maw, once the leader of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association, was caught claiming to be a resident of both Alaska and Montana, a claim illegal in both states.

It was a bit of a black-eye for UCIDA, but Maw was eventually welcomed back.

And there is little doubt the majority of Kenai commercial fishermen are Alaska residents, which has proven unlucky for the residents of the Anchorage-MatSu Economic Region of the state wherein in live nearly four of every seven Alaskans. 

Many of those Alaskans want Kenai fish for their freezers. Kenai commercial fishermen see every fish headed for a freezer as cash taken out of their pockets. Those obvious differences set the stage for a classic conflict that has been ongoing for a long, long time now.

The freezer fillers have the body count on their side. The commercial fishermen have the time, the money and the organization to guide the Alaska Board of Fisheries, the supposedly politics-free entity that sets Alaska fishery regulations, in allocating the salmon resource between the various user groups.

Cook Inlet fishermen are caught in a war against the masses. It is the immoveable object against the unstoppable force. So far, the immoveable object has more held its own.

Next: Carving up the pie









6 replies »

  1. Craig, thank you for acknowledging that there are differing opinions within the sport fishery, not just from outside it. Issues like C&R, bag/possession limits, and snagging are all hotly debated within the sport/guided fisheries. It is disingenuous to blame the commercial fishery for all of the perceived shortcomings in the inriver fisheries, as you and those you work for have been doing for years. There are a lot of people and interests involved in this regulatory process, and differing views and opinions within each user group. Not accurate or fair to lump all users in one group into the same category. You mentioned the ethnic and socio-economic diversity in the PU fishery, but really it is impressive how many people of all different flavors and walks participate in all of our fisheries.

    Thank you also for acknowledging that you worked for Bob Penney during the contentious setnet initiative. It seems he was paying people to advance the initiative while also paying people to work towards a different end. That effort continues, and I suspect it includes taxing Alaskans to buy back allocation of his favorite resource, Kenai Kings. I can’t say that I blame you for contracting as a consultant on political issues like resource allocation, as is detailed in the below article, but I have to say that it changes my perspective when reading your opinion pieces like this one, and it changes my view of this website.

    Getting back on subject, I’m not sure why we have a fairness issue; Access and harvest in the Kenai sport/pu fisheries is easier and higher than ever for the average Alaskan, most of whom had no part in making the sacrifices necessary to rebuild past struggling runs you somewhat accurately depict. If your freezer is barren of fish it is not due to lack of access or opportunity this summer.

    Craig, you seem to accept the subsistence priority as fair and just, yet you don’t acknowledge that having a diverse mix of fisheries, including healthy commercial fisheries (which will by nature always harvest the bulk of the salmon) is the best and most important thing for the local Alaskan communities that depend most on these salmon runs. Surely the cultural and economic health of places like the Kenai Peninsula rank highly on the scale of Alaskan’s best interests, and there is no debating that ALL of our fisheries contribute to that.

    • well, Todd, your contributions aren’t keeping me alive, and the advertising model isn’t exactly working for anyone trying to do news online. so i’ve taken on some consulting work. i believe anyone is entitled to purchase advice and writing assistance. it doesn’t change my opinions anymore than traditional newspaper advertising did.
      in fact, just the opposite. i’ve never spiked a story here i thought worth doing. i had stories spiked at both the Anchorage Daily News and the Alaska Dispatch (though that was more voluntary than ordered/Alice Rogoff appealed to me to kill a story for her because of deeply personal issues involving a friend who was not part of the story but would have been further heartbroken by what it revealed) and the Alaska Dispatch News, which killed a story explaining why Roland Maw, a Cook Inlet commercial fisherman, suddenly and unexpectedly resigned from the Board of Fisheries. he was already under investigation for residency questions and potential PFD fraud, something the Dispatch News chose to cover up at the time.
      i don’t do that kind of shit here. i go where the story goes sometimes even if i don’t like where the story goes, as with the Iditarod’s little problem with Travis Bealls and domestic abuse. i’d just as soon have spiked that one, but i didn’t because domestic violence is an issue of significant important across the state and Alaskans deserved to know how our biggest sporting event was handling it.
      that said, i’ve always advised people to be skeptical about what they read ANYWHERE. healthy skepticism is a good thing. it’s why you’ll find me linking the crap out of what i write. those are the footnotes of our time and make it possible for anyone who wants to in many cases go look at actual data. i believe in actual data.
      i also believe in talking to people frankly about how journalists work. i dare you to go try to have such a conversation with most other journos in this state. they want to hide in some private tower and claim they are pillars of objectivity. i’ve spent my life around these people. they are biased as all get out. and the best way to let bias creep into stories it to pretend you don’t have it.
      i have a bias here. i think the state should get the maximum economic return out of all its resources as it does with oil.
      all of which brings us back to fish and that fundamental matter of fairness. everyone paid the price of conservation in the 1970s to get us out of a jam.
      the commercial fishery got nearly all the benefits from the 1980s on.
      yes, not all Alaskans here now contributed to the recovery, though many did. i paid income taxes from sometime after i arrived broke in Fairbanks in 1973 until the state shucked the income tax. i’d guess there aren’t many in this category. but the masses of today are entitled to some payback for the contribution of the masses of yesterday. it’s that simple.
      and i didn’t say a subsistence “priority” is “fair and just.” i said there should be recognition of the best use of the resource for the people as recognized by the Constitution, including the Constitutional reference to protecting the average Alaskan’s access to the state’s resources.
      when it comes to the overall question of best use, obviously the answer in a capitalist democracy comes in economic benefit.
      there’s economic benefit in the commercial fishery. there’s economic benefit in the sport fishery. and there’s economic benefit in the PU fishery.
      i used to downplay the latter, but after listening to my setnet neighbor whine about all the people driving from Anchorage to the Kenai in big trucks with ATVs and those heavy, expensive Costco dipnets in the back, i’d like to see a study on the economic value of the dipnet fishery. it could be those people are spending far more than i thought to catch a fish. if they’re pumping $5,000 into the Alaska economy to catch 50 pounds of fish then it’s a whole different fishery than i think it is with my spending $50-$100 to catch 120 pounds of fish (15 @ an 8# avg).
      sockeye at 84 cents a pound is great for me. it is not great for the state economy. the fish are a lot more valuable in the sport fishery at about $20 per pound (estimated total harvest of about 6 million pounds at $115M NEV) or the commercial fishery at $1.50 to $2 per pound. but, of course, the sport fishery can’t begin to catch the volume of salmon returning to Cook Inlet.
      thus, from an economic standpoint, given the data, an economist would argue the state should be try to maximize the sport harvest, clean up the rest of the allowable catch with the commercial fishery, and leave the PU fishery to whatever it gets, which is sort of the exact opposite of the way we manage now.
      with that said, however, the economically best outcome, plus a boost for the PU fishery, is pretty much what we get if we simply boost the Kenai sockeye goal to 1.8 or 2 million fish past the sonar, giving us an EG of around 1.3 to 1.5M after the inriver catch. A 1.8-2M goal is going to put a lot of fish in the river, which drives the sport fishery to success.
      and to get that many fish in the river, managers are, in most years, going to have to go easier on the commercial catch in the last couple weeks of July, which makes fishing way better for dipnetters in the PU fishery.
      but i can already hear the howls from any commercial fisherman reading this. their whining like a Boeing 737 on takeoff even though a Kenai sonar goal of 2M would still easily maintain a Cook Inlet catch of two to three times as many sockeye as the historical commercial catch of 1.2M.
      meanwhile, if someone can find a clean way to catch those 18 million harvestable pinks UCIDA believes are out there, let’s do it. maybe bring back beach seining, a historic Cook Inlet fishery? there are places in the Inlet it would appear that in good weather you could seine, hold and live sort to take pinks free of fatal sockeye bycatch.

  2. “Many of those Alaskans want Kenai fish for their freezers. Kenai commercial fishermen see every fish headed for a freezer as cash taken out of their pockets. Those obvious differences set the stage for a classic conflict that has been ongoing for a long, long time now.”

    That is a pretty assumptive statement, made by someone who has an interest in perpetuating this fish fight. Many Alaskans and non-residents want and get fish for their freezers every year. Many commercial fishermen are happy to see smiling people with full freezers, and know (and even depend on) the social and economic effect of our inriver fisheries. If folks like yourself and Mr. Barnes were more focused on creating reasonable expectations and educating people about the fish they were catching as well as all the ways they contribute to our culture and community rather than scapegoating the commercial fisheries for every perceived shortcoming in individuals’ experiences, we’d likely have a lot less conflict.

    You wrongly argued (while admittedly on Bob Penney’s payroll) that the recent Supreme Court decision regarding Penney’s setnet ban initiative gave commercial fishermen ownership of the resource, when it actually ensured protection for all user groups from this type of elimination. Ironically, it is the same protection that Kenai subsistence fishermen received with the creation of the PU fishery after the Cook Inlet subsistence fishery was closed. You argue that limited entry privatized and made access to this resource exclusive, yet more Alaskans get out and fish than ever. Opportunity everywhere, and healthy commercial fisheries to boot. My family started setnetting in the 60’s during the low points you accurately describe. We feel fortunate to have a stake in this successful fishery, and are glad that our friends and neighbors can participate too. Access to our commercial fisheries is quite attainable. They are typically priced on par with an average business investment, and are bought and sold all the time. One of the most limiting factors to investment in this market is the political and regulatory uncertainty brought on by your employer, Mr. Penney, and his group of friends.

    You recently lamented over the precipitous drop in Kenai River guides after the decline in Kenai Kings. Is it possible that the market was over-saturated? Would some sort of limited entry have helped prevent this? Would you be surprised to learn that, even with the drop in guides, the number of guided angler hours has increased on the Kenai? It has, and unguided angler hours and inriver harvest have exploded, meaning more people have access to this successfully and sustainably managed resource than ever before.

    Also, it is not appropriate to compare harvest statistics between the sport and commercial fisheries. Apples and oranges. It would be more appropriate to compare catch statistics in the sport fishery (since a large portion of sport-caught fish are released) to harvest in the commercial. One fishery is purely harvest-based. The other is not. Neither comparison really illustrates opportunity, which should be the most important factor, IMO, and which abounds throughout most of Alaska.

    • really Todd? really? all sockeye fisheries are about harvest. the only catch-and-release in the Kenai sockeye fishery is because of anti-snagging requirements.
      the reality of this whole issue is simple: everyone was seriously restricted to rebuild flagging salmon runs in the 1960s and 1970s. but once the runs were rebuilt, all the benefit was given to the commercial fishery. annual harvest there tripled in the ’80s while the sport fishery continued plodding along under the same very restrictive harvest rules (three per day, no keeping snagged fish, limited numbers of fish allowed in the river) and the subsistence fishery was killed and transformed into a PU fishery restricted to a few weeks with part-of-a-day fishing in a limited portion of the river.
      i do think it is nice if you like to see dipnetters or anglers catching fish. that is not the view of the hundreds of Kenai commercial fishermen i’ve either talked to personally or listened to at Board of Fisheries meetings for more than 30 years.
      and it would be nice if i was on Bob Penney’s payroll. i’d like to be on somebody’s payroll. feel free to hit the “tips” button at the bottom of any story and put me on your payroll. the whole Bob Penney as bogeyman schickt gets old.
      the political and regulatory uncertainty isn’t Penney; it’s the tens of thousands of Alaskans who want their interests treated the same as those of folks in the commercial fishing business.

      • Craig, your 98%-2% statistic was not limited to sockeye. Don’t change the parameters.

        “Today in Alaska, somewhere around 98 percent of the state salmon harvest is allocated to commercial fishermen.”

        That figure likely even includes pinks.

        Your comments imply that the current PU fishery provides less opportunity to the average Alaskan than the old subsistence fishery did. I spent a lot of time in that fishery as a child, and nothing could be further from the truth. The previous fishery required knowledge of setnetting, and the purchase or construction of setnet gear – knowledge and resources most PU fishermen do not have. One could compare the demographic of users in the current Kasilof PU setnet fishery to the PU dipnet fishery to see this.

        As for inriver sockeye sport fishing – the sport fishing community is largely against allowing retention of snagged fish, and there are many in the guided industry who prefer a 3 sockeye limit to a 6 sockeye limit, just as there are many who prefer a 2 Coho limit to a 3 Coho limit. Easier to limit the boat and go home, or back for another load of clients.

        You recently confirmed being on Bob Penney’s payroll throughout the initiative process which ended less than a year ago. I don’t know or care if you are being paid to write this, but I’m sure back-scratching is involved. I’ll hold on to the tips for now. I’ve got some college tuitions to save for.

        Craig, the history of these fisheries is interesting, and I applaud you for researching it. Hopefully you can appreciate the different perspective that my comments provide without getting nasty and making personal attacks as is common in this arena. I agree that the Bob Penney boogey man thing is getting old. He’s been focused on elimating an entire user group for far too long. Unfortunate and disappointing that you’ve been helping him, as it is really unnecessary and harmful to my community.

      • Todd: to repeat once more, i got paid by Bob Penney for engaging with a number of people in talks about ways to avoid the initiative. there were talks about how the setnet fishery could be managed to significantly minimize Chinook by-catch and how something might be done legislatively to effectively meet the intent of the initiative and thus make it legally possible to remove it from the ballot. if that makes me biased, so be it.
        i don’t buy the Penney hype. in every conversation i’ve ever had with him, he’s focused on bycatch – not eliminating anyone. way back when he even had the whacky idea to replace the setnet fishery and enroll all the setnet fishermen in a cooperative with a weir on the upper river that could hold sockeye, remove exactly the number ADF&G wanted removed, and let kings pass unharmed. it was essentially a plan to let former setnetters make more than than they had been making without even working.
        as to the rest of it, you are right on some of this. guides might like a two-fish limit, and there’s no reason the Board couldn’t set a different limit for the guided fishery than the unguided fishery. we already do it in the halibut fishery. likewise, there is no reason the Board couldn’t set limits by species as we now do with kings and “other salmon.”
        maybe some rod and reel people want a bunch of pinks to can. why not let them have them?
        but we both know the Cook Inlet battle isn’t over pinks. it’s over three prize species: sockeye, Chinook and coho.
        and there the reality is that we don’t have an allocation issue in Cook Inlet, we have a fairness issue. Alaska voters approved limited entry for a 1.1M/year sockeye fishery. then they spent tens of millions of dollars trying to improve all Cook Inlet salmon fisheries. and what did the masses get for this:
        a few hundred thousand sockeye, if that; plus lower Chinook returns and the same (or lower) coho returns.
        and what did a comparative handful of commercial fishermen get?
        2.2 million extra sockeyes on average every year for the last 35 years or so.
        i confess, before i did the research, i didn’t have a lot of tolerance for the whining of people in the personal-use dipnet fishery. i’m somewhat more sympathetic now. they deserve some fair share of these rebuilt runs. and i’m not a big fan of of providing those fish via subsistence setnet fisheries. setnets make it hard to release by-catch unharmed, and they make it hard to abide by fishing limits.
        if you’ve got 20 of your 25 allowed fish, and you do a set that gets you 15 more nearly dead fish, what do you do? dump 10 back in the river knowing they’re likely to die?
        lastly, the sport fishing community is against a directed snag fishery. but i don’t think you’d find a lot of opposition to making the Kenai fly-fishing only for sockeye and then saying anglers could keep fish hooked only in the mouth, head or gills.

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