With what passes for mainstream media in Alaska making nice in the wake of the spring meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries, it appears possible some board members don’t even know what they did, but average Alaskans need to know so here is a quick recap:
- The board took fish away from personal-use dipnetters on the Kenai River.
- The board took fish away from Matanuska-Susitna Valley anglers and the Valley tourism businesses that depend on those anglers to survive.
- The board took fish away from Kenai River coho anglers and the businesses that depend on those anglers.
- The board ignored the advice of a former board chairman and state Superior Court judge that the time has come to begin following the Alaska Constitution’s mandate to manage fish like other state resources “for the maximum benefit of its people.”
- The board shifted away from a long-standing state policy of trying to reduce mixed-stock fisheries so as to limit by-catch of non-target species of salmon and protect weak runs.
- And the board allowed a commercial fishery to continue on a mixed stock that contains no less than six runs of Chinook salmon the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has listed as “stocks of concern.”
The first three bullet points, while sure to anger some average Alaskans and small business people in tourism markets, are the least of the issues in that list. There is nothing wrong with the board taking fish away from any user group.
Allocating between fisheries is the board’s job. Board chairman John Jensen, a commercial fishermen from Petersburg, recognized that.
What he didn’t say is that in a zero-sum game allocating “some more fish to” group X requires taking “some more fish” away from group Y, but why would the board chairman want to be so honest?
Such a statement might actually anger average Alaskans who like to fish to fill their freezers or simply for fun.
No sense in firing up the masses who live under the illusion their interests will be protected by the staff of the Alaska Division of Sport Fisheries for which anglers are the sole means of support. The division is one of the few self-supporting agencies in state government. All its funding comes from license fees paid by anglers and a federal match generated by federal taxes on fishing gear.
You might think the Division would at least embrace the idea it should try to do something to help the people who pay its bill. You’d think it would at least argue for conservation on a popular salmon stream like the Valley’s Little Susitna River which has failed to meet coho spawning goals for five of the last 10 years.
You’d be wrong.
The board did hear from some Mat-Su anglers and business owners worried about weak salmon runs, but they got no back up from the state biologists. Then the board heard from many of the 1,100 people who hold exclusive Cook Inlet commercial fishing permits.
They all said they were dying because of the loss of those fish they “gave up” as Jensen put it.
Whether the economic data supported those claims is another issue.
But that shift had little to do with the upper inlet fisheries the Board was discussing. The Upper Cook Inlet (UCI) sockeye salmon catch last year was reported to be worth about $23 million, only about $1 million less than the year before.
The big shift in value was linked to larger catches of pink salmon in the lower Inlet and a bonus-run of chum salmon in the upper Inlet, the part of the Inlet for which the Board was debating regulations.
As the ADF&G harvest summary for 2015 noted, the UCI catch “of approximately 269,000 chum salmon was more than double the previous 10-year average annual harvest of nearly 123,000 fish and represents the highest chum salmon harvest since 1995.”
A big chunk of that harvest came from Chitina Bay where state biologists noticed an unusually large return of chums and, according to their report, opened an emergency fishery for both commercial set and gillnet fisheries. This is the sort of clean fishery targeted on a specific run of salmon that makes for good fisheries management.
The catch there, the report notes, helped boost the “value of chum salmon in the 2015 commercial fishery (to) approximately $729,000 or 3.0% of the total exvessel value in UCI.” For comparison sake, the exvessel value of the 2015 UCI pink salmon catch “was $39,000, or 0.2% of the total exvessel value.”
Suffice to say, pink and chum catches add little value to the 1,100 UCI permit holders. The sockeyes are what matter to them. Sockeyes return about 95 percent of the Cook Inlet value that produced an average of $20,909 per permit in 2016, down $909 from an average of $21,818 the year before.
Too many permits
In looking at these numbers, the most interesting thing that jumps out is what a mess the UCI fishery. When Alaska voters approved a 1973 amendment to the state Constitution to create what is now called “Limited Entry,” the intent was to limit competition to make commercial fishing a viable business.
The idea has worked elsewhere. Data from the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission indicates that the 523 commercial fishermen who call Anchorage home earn an average $94,000 a year – almost five times the average earnings on a Cook Inlet permit.
Granted, there are UCI fishermen who fish in more than the Inlet’s gillnet fisheries – some trolling in Southeast when not tending nets in the Inlet in July, some working in the halibut longline fishery around gillnet openings – who have made commercial fishing a business.
But a lot of UCI fishermen are little but part timers who spend a portion of their summer enjoying a well-paying hobby. This is what Roland Maw, the one-time director of the powerful United Cook Inlet Drift Association – did for a long, long time. He worked a full-time job as a professor at Lethbridge Community College in Alberta, Canada, and came north to enjoy Alaska and his fishing hobby in the summers.
When and how Maw became an Alaskan, if in fact he ever did, is now being adjudicated. Alaska Gov. Bill Walker’s former appointee to the Fish Board is scheduled to go to trail in Juneau in August to face charges he defrauded the Permanent Fund by claiming to be an Alaskan when he wasn’t.
Maw quit the Fish Board, reportedly on orders from Walker, shortly after it was revealed he was claiming to be a resident of both Alaska and Montana, where he maintains a home not far south of the border from Lethbridge.
Walker later appointed Robert Ruffner, a former leader in Kenai Peninsula salmon conservation efforts, to fill Maw’s seat on the board. Ruffner did a good Maw impersonation at this year’s board meeting as he led the charge to see that UCIDA “got some more fish” as Jensen put it.
What does this shift of fish mean?
Winners and losers
Well, aside from an average Alaskan standing to lose fish or fishing opportunities because of the shift, whether Alaska wins or loses in the bigger economic scheme of things is a total unknown.
The board might have made a wise economic decision in giving the commercial fishery a shot at more fish despite the complaints from MatSu businesses and some Kenai dipnetters that they weren’t getting a fair shake.
The board might have made a horrible economic decision in giving the commercial fishery a shot at more fish even though those fishermen regaled the board with tales of economic hardship.
The fact is the board didn’t ask for any economic data to try to sort out losses and gains, or losers and winners. And even if it had asked for such data, there is no one to provide it. Fish and Game has a whole bunch of biologists. It has no economist.
As a result, board members were left to use their feelings to sort economic decisions that might be worth millions of dollars, if not tens of millions of dollars. This is the historic norm for Alaska fisheries management. Feelings take the place of data.
Totally overlooked in this exercise are the interests of the majority of Alaskans. Most of them don’t fish. All they get of value out of the fishery resource comes from what it adds to the state’s overall economy.
In this respect, fish are like Alaska oil only without the tax bonanza. From a tax standpoint, the state actually loses millions of dollars on commercial fisheries every year, but it does gain jobs. And fishery jobs, like oil patch jobs, help keep the Alaska economy afloat.
Some of the fishery jobs are in the commercial fishery. Some of the fishery jobs are in the tourism industry. Some of the jobs are in businesses that sell commercial fishing gear or sportfishing paraphernalia or provide services to the hundreds of thousands of non-residents who come here to fish each summer.
The state last year sold 300,862 non-resident fishing licenses and pocketed more than $13 million – more than twice what it collected from resident anglers and about four times what it collected in license fees from both resident and non-resident commercial fishermen.
How much these non-residents spent in Alaska to catch the fish is an unknown. There is no easily recorded exvessel value on tourists. The University of Alaska Anchorage Institute of Social and Economic Research in 1993 estimated sport fishing was then a $637 million business statewide with about two-thirds of the money – around $425 million – spent in the region surrounding the state’s largest city.
The biggest fisheries in that area revolve around Cook Inlet.
Politics have stopped the state from revisiting the value issue, but studies done elsewhere have generally concluded there is a significantly bigger economic return in inviting a tourist to come catch a fish – a horribly inefficient business – than letting a commercial fisherman catch the fish and sell it – a pretty efficient business.
Just think how much you’d spend to get that chicken if you had to hunt it down and kill it somewhere rather than buy it in the grocery.
How the state can allocate salmon to get the maximum economic return out of its fisheries without considering this sort of information is not something the Fish Board has ever contemplated.
Its whole theory of allocation has long been lost in the weeds of the idea it exists to mediate between competing interest groups – commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, personal-use dipnetters and subsistence advocates – as if they were the only ones with a stake in Alaska fisheries.
What is best for the collective whole of Alaskans is not even on the table at board meetings. The board has never made an attempt to maximize the net economic value of state fisheries. If the members of the Alaska Oil and Gas Conservation Commission acted this way, they’d all get fired.
But this is what it is.
At least conservation has generally been something to which the Fish Board has given consideration. Unfortunately, even that got thrown under the bus this year.
Ruffner, the board’s newly appointed conservationist, and a whole gang of state fisheries biologists sat mute when the subject of harvesting troubled northern Cook Inlet Chinook salmon stocks came up.
The conservation decision here was simple.
A small commercial salmon net fishery near the mouth of the Susitna River targets a big mixed stock of Chinook, or king salmon as Alaskans more often call them.
These are fish bound for dozens of streams in and around the Susitna drainage. Some of those streams get more spawners than they need. Some don’t. None of the spawning tributaries have a problem with “too many” spawners, and even if they did, anglers could easily be directed to solve that problem by fishing more just as they’ve solved the problem of too few spawners by fishing less or not at all.
The Chuitna, Theodore and Lewis rivers are now closed to king salmon angling because of a shortage of salmon. So, too Alexander, Sheep and Goose creeks. All six of these have king runs Fish and Game classifies as “fish stocks of concern.”
The state’s policy for the management of sustainable salmon fisheries “defines three levels of concern (yield, management, and conservation) with yield being the lowest level of concern and conservation the highest level of concern.”
The six stocks of Chinook listed above are of “management concern.” Think of them as something like a species designated “threatened” under the federal Endangered Species Act.
Two other Valley salmon stocks – Susitna sockeye and Willow Creek Chinook – are listed as species of “yield concern,” meaning they aren’t producing significant harvestable surpluses even if they are meeting spawning goals, which in some cases they’ve missed and which in some cases the Board has decided not to establish.
When the news is likely to be bad, it’s sometimes better not to know, right?
The six stocks of management concern mentioned above are all subject to being picked off in the Chinook-targeted gillnet fishery early in the season. This is a fishery that was established in 1985 when Susitna-Yentna river Chinook runs were far in surplus of spawning needs.
Anglers in the Mat-Su Valley at that time made a deal with commercial fishermen to support the new set-gillnet fishery with the understanding that if runs weakened in the future, the new commercial fishery would be closed.
Andy Couch, a representative from the Matanuska Valley Fish and Game Advisory Committee, reminded board members of that this year. They sat as silent as salmon carcasses on a riverbank.
Alaska was once a world leader in salmon conservation. Those days appear to be over. No salmon fishery management organization on either coast today would allow a targeted commercial fishery on a mixed-stock fishery of this nature when any harvestable surplus could be taken elsewhere with no threat to the weaker components of the run.
Add in the fact that a November 2015 study in Marine Policy concluded the surplus salmon caught on rod and reel by an angler would be worth about $1,000 each versus less than $50 in the commercial fishery, and this one becomes a no-brainer.
If you have a brain.
In one case, you can sensibly harvest fish in an ecologically sound way and pump $1,000 a fish into the economy. In the other, you can play Russian roulette with the fish to produce a twentieth as much.
This board didn’t seem to care. Nor did it seem much concerned about Susitna sockeye, another species of concern, or those Little Su coho salmon that have failed to meet spawning goals for five of the last 10 years. Both runs pass through a gauntlet of commercial nets in the Inlet.
Past boards had sought to protect these fish with a “conservation corridor” that restricted commercial fishing. This board relaxed the rules for the corridor. That was a big win for UCIDA.
With luck, it won’t be a big loss for conservation. Not that the current Board of Fisheries acted like it much cares about such things. The only salmon it acted to protect were troubled, early-run Kenai Chinook, which no one has fished for years.