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.
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.
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