Another fish fight


The Alaska Outdoor Council, the 49th state’s largest outdoor organization, says it’s mad as hell and not going to take it anymore.

The problem? A decision by Alaska Republican Senators Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan to team with a pair of Democrats – Sen. Edward Markey from Massachusetts and Sen. Maria Cantwell from Washington state – to introduce the “Young Fishermen’s Development Act.”

“This could not be anymore offensive,” Rod Arno, the executive director of the AOC, said Friday.

Needless to say, the young fishermen involved are not the sons and daughters of AOC anglers and dipnetters.

Welcome to the strange, complicated and contentious world of Alaska fishery politics, or fishtics as some call it.

Murkowksi, the state’s senior senator and someone who should know the political terrain of fisheries well in the wake of the sent-to-prison disaster of former fisheries adviser Arne Fuglvog, and Sullivan appear to have walked right into an Alaska firestorm thinking they could gain some easy Alaska votes by attaching their names to some relatively meaningless legislation.

“This legislation is an important step in addressing some of the barriers facing young people trying to join the commercial fishing fleet,” a press release quoted Murkowski saying. “Through support of training, education, and workplace development, it is my hope that we can pass down the values and lifestyles that fishing creates. Fishermen are woven into the fabric of our communities in Alaska, so we must ensure that we nurture the incoming generations. I am proud to support our young fishermen.”

The comments are more talk than substance. According to the same press release, the legislation calls for a “$2 million annual authorization for six years for program implementation.”

With fishing interests on both coasts of the lower 48 in line for the funds, it is unknown how big a slice of that $2 million pie Alaska might get, but even if it got it all, the money would only  be enough to help young fishermen finance 16 Bristol Bay drift gillnet salmon permits at today’s price. 

And the high, capital costs of entry into Alaska fisheries is what is keeping Alaska young people out of the commercial fishing business.

The cost of good intentions

The state gave ownership of permits to about 15,000 commercial fishermen after Alaska voters in 1972 approved a Constitutional amendment allowing the state to create an exclusive club of fishermen. The intent of the “limited entry act” that followed the vote was three-fold:

  1. To make it easier for the Alaska Department of Fish and Game to manage salmon fisheries by fixing, and in some cases reducing, the number of people allowed to fish commercially.
  2. To “prevent economic distress among fishermen” by limiting free-market competition.
  3. To “promote the efficient development of aquaculture.”

The latter provision of the act was amended in 1990 to ban salmon farming in Alaska in favor of salmon ranching because of fears farmed fish, too, would compete with commercial fishermen. The history on that action is interesting.

“From a political science perspective, the Alaska controversy over salmon
farming is fascinating,” Brent Paine, a member of Alaska Finfish Farming Task Force at the time and now the director of a Seattle-based Bering Sea trawl cooperative, would observe a year later in writing his Masters of Science thesis for the University of Oregon. “The bitterness and rancor expressed in the debate reveals a profound ambivalence in our attitudes towards development and the extraordinary role that politics plays in the economy of a state. Allowing one industry to exercise veto power over another seems like third world politics. In a sense it is given Alaska’s history of fisheries development.

“On one level, the controversy is a classic example of an established
industry attempting to protect itself from new competing technologies. Even if
proponents were able to refute all arguments and prove that fish farming in
Alaska would have no negative impacts on traditional fisheries, it is likely many
would still oppose this emerging industry, in part because it involves new
technology, new values, and new people.

“This includes a new user of the state’s marine resource, additional requests for state funds and a new concept of producing seafood which employs husbandry techniques as opposed to hunting and capturing fish. As one commercial fisherman stated during a public hearing on finfish aquaculture, ‘Commercial fishermen are, I think, by and large
philosophically unprepared for this kind of change. I am a high seas hunter.'”

The high seas hunters have long been aggressively protective of the political power Paine noted in 1991. And there is no indication the power has lessened in recent decades. It, in turn, provides the fuel for a classic political struggle between the haves and the have-nots.

Murkowski and Sullivan somehow touched off the latter.

AOC Anger

“Team AOC: Could we get 25 people to write in and criticize this piece of legislation?” Arno wrote in an email sent to AOC members Friday. “This is an atrocity.

“Everyone should say the same thing:

“I oppose S.1323.  Conservatives got Dan Sullivan elected. This bill takes my tax dollars and uses it to train non-resident commercial fishermen to take my fish.  Not what I had in mind when Dan asked me for my vote.”

Non-resident fishermen are yet another contentious issue in Alaska. About 75 percent of  commercial fishing permit holders are believed to be residents, but the residency claims have long been questioned and lately sullied by Roland Maw, once the executive director of the powerful United Cook Inlet Drifters Association and a Gov. Bill Walker appointee to the Alaska Board of Fisheries.

As it turned out, Maw was claiming to be a resident of both Alaska and Montana – the state where he grew up, where he owned a home and where his wife stayed.

“He and his wife own a house in Montana, where his wife lives for health reasons,” former Alaska Dispatch News reporter Pat Forgey wrote at the time of Maw’s sudden resignation from the Fish Board in 2015. At the time, the newspaper covered up the reason for Maw’s sudden resignation, but it later emerged that he was facing charges in Montana for claiming residency in two states.

He was later judged guilty in Montana and ordered to pay a fine of $7,245, but his troubles were just beginning. The state of Alaska then charged him with 12 felonies for illegally claiming Permanent Fund Dividends while a non-resident. He managed to get the charges tossed on a technicality only to be re-indicted.

He is now facing a trial in Juneau in August. His actions have raised questions about “P.O. Box residents” in a state where who is Alaskan and who is not is a big issue.

Commercial fishermen charge sport-fishing is overrun with non-resident guides and that far too many non-resident fishermen come to Alaska to chase salmon.

Both commercial fishermen and some resident sport fishermen complain about the “cooler-loads” of salmon shipped south through the Anchorage International Airport while container loads of commercially caught salmon go south by ship and truck.

Fish wars

There is plenty of emotion on either side of the commercial/non-commercial salmon divide.

And a Walker-appointed Fish Board inclined to protect the interests of commercial fishermen in a state where commercial fishing is a big business harvesting 98.2 percent of fish and wildlife resources has, fairly or unfairly, only served to raise the ire of the AOC.

The issue of by-catch in Alaska commercial salmon fisheries is a particularly hot issue for AOC because most of its members – primarily sport and personal-use fishermen – do their fishing in rivers and streams behind a curtain of often indiscriminate commercial nets.

The nets primarily target the plentiful species – pink, chum and sockeye salmon – vital to the commercial fishery, but also catch less plentiful species – Chinook or “king” salmon and Coho or “silver” salmon – important to Alaska sport fisheries.

Back to the future?

“If the (commercial) industry isn’t lucrative enough to recruit new participants why on earth would we want to continue to perpetuate it?” Arno asked. “A more sustainable commercial fish industry would be regulated fish traps at the mouth of productive salmon streams. Much safer also.

“Big changes need to occur in Alaska’s commercial fisheries industry to protect the mixed stock of salmon in Alaskan waters and to accommodate Alaskan residents in-river use.”

Limited entry was the last big change to occur. It protected the interests of commercial fishermen.

The biggest change before that was an Alaska ban on the very fish traps Arno mentions. Traps allowed for selective and carefully regulated harvests, but they were almost wholly controlled by Seattle-based fishing businesses.

“The concentration of trap ownership in the hands of a handful of nonresident corporations was particularly galling,” Steve Colt of the University of Alaska’s Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) wrote in a history of the traps. “According to Alaska economist George Rogers (1960), the trap represented the ‘very quintessence of absenteeism’ — absentee private capital in cahoots with absentee federal regulation. Pondering the political landscape shortly after traps were banned by the new State of Alaska, Rogers suggested that the traps have long been the principal bete noire of Alaskan political demonology.

“The anti-trap case has been emotionally distorted to the point where even Alaskans who have never seen one would readily brand them as ‘fish killers’ and look upon them as the very embodiment of evil in this world….It could also be said that as long as traps continued in operation, they could serve a number of useful political purposes. The local candidate for public office could always resort to taking a staunch stand against traps and count on the other issues being drowned out by ringing applause.”

Colt ended that 2000 look back by noting the changes in Alaska fisheries since Statehood, the efficiency of the traps that no longer existed, and the value those traps once provided to the state as a whole.

“Long-term data also show that Alaska salmon fishermen have been consistently rescued from their own declining physical productivity by rising real prices,” he wrote. “The periodic need to exit the industry has been minimized, but only by luck. Recent price pressure from ever-increasing supplies of farmed salmon has changed this picture. The ex-vessel value of salmon declined from a 1988 peak of $781 million to $362 million in 1996 despite a 50 percent increase in harvest volume. Starting from a zero-profit equilibrium, these downward price shocks have induced full-blown ‘natural disasters’ in coastal Alaska, complete with federal aid.

“It may be time for Alaskans to reconsider the fish trap,” he concluded.

Little has changed since then. Farmed salmon now dominate the market and largely control salmon pricing. The World Wildlife Fund reports 70 percent of global salmon production is farmed fish, and though there has been a temporary lull in farm production, that percentage is projected to keep growing in the future.

As a result, prices are expected to stay at or near current levels that require Alaska commercial fishermen to try to catch every last salmon they can to try to make a living. The commercial fisheries’ insatiable thirst for maximum harvest runs headlong into the interests of an ever-growing Alaska public wanting what the AOC sees as a “fairer” share of the catch.

When the limited entry law was passed in 1973 – a year after the constitutional amendment – the commercial salmon harvest stood at 22.3 million fish, and Alaska was home to approximately 330,500 people.

Last year, the commercial salmon harvest was an unusually low for the decade 112.5 million fishdown from the 268.3 million the year before and significantly below the 157 million from 2014 – and the Alaska population had reached about 750,000.

Both Alaska salmon harvests and the Alaska population have grown hugely since 1973, but the majority of people who have come since ’73 have reaped little in the way of benefit from the big increase in fish.

Of the 90 million to 246 million per year annual increase in salmon harvests since limited entry, AOC members have hooked or netted little.  The sport fishery harvest was estimated in the hundreds of thousands in the early 1970s.

It was officially pegged at 625,800 salmon in 1984 (there are no official figures readily available for the years before that), and it more than doubled to almost 1.6 million by 2015.

The increase is on one hand large and on the other tiny.

Even if the harvest had started at zero in ’73, the 1.6 million fish sport fish catch of 2015 (the last year for which data is available) would equal only .06 to 2 percent of the increase in the annual number of Alaska salmon being killed in the state since voters approved limited entry.

It might explain Arno’s outrage at what seems almost nothing. And it likely would be nothing had the AOC not grown increasingly angry its members don’t get a bigger share of the fish that state has managed to grow from small numbers in the 1970s to huge numbers in the 2000s.

AOCs complaint parallels the complaints that led to Statehood. To the AOC today, Alaska commercial fishermen circa 2017 have become the fish-trap barons of the pre-Statehood days.

And for that, Alaska politics being the weirdness that it is, Murkowski and Sullivan are now taking the heat.

5 replies »

  1. I was wondering how much of our Alaskan Salmon is going to pay off our debt to China, and it appears quite a lot of it (definitely more than return to spawn in South Central AK)….one article linked below, lists the foreign export of U.S. Salmon at 80% of total catch….if this is true, both Murkowski and Sullivan should be ashamed of themselves.

    “The US is a salmon-catching powerhouse. Nearly one-third of the world’s wild salmon supply comes from US nets. Even when you take into account farmed salmon, US fishermen still bring around one-tenth of the total supply of salmon to the market. But more than half of America’s salmon catch is going overseas:

    It’s not that Americans aren’t eating salmon. They are—just not their own. Two-thirds of the salmon eaten by US consumers is imported—mostly from farms in Chile, Canada and Norway and from processing factories in China. More than just a quirk of taste, this habit of snubbing domestic salmon in favor of foreign farmed fish exemplifies a more disquieting trend for US industry, argues journalist Paul Greenberg in his book American Catch: The Fight for Our Local Seafood (purchase required). It’s the result of an American seafood ignorance that could threaten both the country’s long-term status as a fishing powerhouse and its secure supply of nutritious protein.”

  2. Did you or the AOC even read the bill?

    The funding is not to be used for purchasing permits or quota; it is to be used for training programs.

    The bill does not use public funds; it uses money from NOAA’s asset forfeiture fund.

    • Tom – and your point is? i understand the money goes for training programs, but what good are training programs when the hurdle to access into the business is capital? not to defend the AOC, who i personally believe went a little overboard here, but you actually make a good case for why the money should be spent on a welder’s program instead. a young guy with that training can go out and get a job and start building a future. in Alaska, i guess fisheries training might help someone get a job as a crewman, but then they’re back to facing the capital problem. i know several young fishermen who’ve gotten in that box and then finally said to hell with it. and the money in the forfeiture fund is public money, public money specifically earmarked for expanded enforcement. this legislation would redirect some of that money to a training program. how does that help enforcement? did you work on this legislation?

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