An Alaskan who 35 years ago led a push to repeal the state’s subsistence priority law because he thought it a bad way to allocate wild, fish and game resources is back with complaints about another priority – this one defacto, not legal.
Former gubernatorial candidate Ron Somerville, now 80, is taking issue with the way commercial interests drive the regulation-setting Alaska Board of Fisheries.
“Since I grew up in a commercial fishing community before Statehood and participated in the debate over the limited entry proposal prior to 1977, ” Somerville said in an email that went out to members of the Alaska Outdoor Council over the weekend, “we were aware of the potential abuses of the program. However, everyone was assured that the limited-entry permit system would not jeopardize the common-property owners of the resource from accessing those resources.
“Clearly that is not the case anymore as limited-entry permit owners have concluded that their expensive limited-entry permits guarantee them total ownership of the various stocks that are heavily utilized.”
He then offered a sure-to-be politically explosive solution to members of the state’s largest, organized hunting and fishing organization:
Convince the Legislature to enact a law limiting commercial fisheries to half the catch in areas where subsistence, sport and personal-use fishermen are capable of catching the rest. The former director of the Wildlife Division in the Alaska Department of Fish and Game sees this as the necessary counter-balance to limited entry.
A legally mandated set aside of fish for non-commercial interests would change little in some parts of the state and a whole lot in others.
In Bristol Bay, where the red salmon return is in the tens of millions, the needs of subsistence, sport and commercial fisheries are small. Bristol Bay is the state’s most valuable salmon fishery.
Thirty-eight-million sockeye were caught there last summer and another 19 million – millions more than were needed for spawning – went up regional rivers and streams. Non-commercial interests couldn’t have caught all the surplus even if they’d tried.
What is the case for the Bay would also be largely the case for most of Prince William Sound, which each year gets swarmed with tens of millions of hatchery pink salmon little desired by non-commercial fishermen.
Meanwhile, king salmon in the Kuskowkim River in Western Alaska are already fully allocated to subsistence fishermen, the commercial king fishery there having died long ago. And commercial fisheries for the other species of Kusko salmon are small.
But there are other fisheries – some in Southeast, others in Cook Inlet and on the Copper River in Eastern Alaska – that could be radically altered by a proposal like Somerville’s.
The commercial catch of sockeye in Cook Inlet last year was 1.8 million fish, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. It was the lowest catch in 10 years, but it was still about twice the sockeye harvest by subsistence, sport and personal-use fishermen. The numbers for the latter catches aren’t in yet, but they are expected to total about a million.
One of the biggest components of the non-commercial sockeye catch is the Kenai River personal-use dipnet fishery, which suffered last year because of the efforts of Fish and Game to use commercial nets to crop off the early return of Kenai reds.
And then there were the Matanuska-Susitna Borough streams and rivers at the head of the Inlet. They are at the mercy of commercial nets from Homer north. Fishermen of all sorts in the Mat-su ended up with only a tiny fraction of the 1.2 million salmon over-and-above the sockeye harvest caught by commercial nets in the Inlet.
Sport, personal-use and subsistence data for the entire Inlet is still being compiled, but the total catch for all these fisheries is unlikely to climb above 1. 5 million. At that level, the math puts the commercial catch at 66 percent or more and everyone else at 33 percent or less.
Non-commercial fishermen in and around Cook Inlet have for years been complaining they don’t get their fair share of the regions salmon.
Somerville suggested that in fisheries covered by limited-entry regulations, commercial interests “cannot be allocated more than 50 percent of a harvestable stock or stocks unless the other common-property, non-commerical users, including licensed non-resident users, are unable to utilize the remainder of the harvestable stock or stocks.”
Such a proposal is given little chance of going anywhere soon in the Alaska Legislature, where commercial fishing interests have long held sway, but the 49th state has changed significantly since limited entry was instituted in the early 1970s.
Who owns the fish?
The “limited-entry proposal” to which Somerville refered is a state Constitutional amendment Alaskans approved in 1972 to allow a cap to be placed on the number of people allowed to commercial fish in the 49th state.
Out of that came the state’s Limited Entry Law. It laid the groundwork to control the number of fishermen participating in various state fisheries. The program began with setting permit levels. It then scored fishermen on the basis of their histories and investments in the fisheries and handed out free permits to those with the highest scores.
The permits became the property of the commercial fishermen to whom they were first awarded. Not many stayed with their original honors. The ink was hardly dry on the limited entry law before fishermen were busy buying and selling permits.
They are now constantly on the market. A Bristol Bay drift gillnet permit goes for $160,000 to $170,000, a Southeast seine permit for $250,000. They are at the upper end of the range. A Norton Sound herring permit can be bought for only $1,000, but harvests in the fishery are low, and the fish are not worth much.
Alaska Boats & Permits, a permit brokerage, at the moment list dozens of permits for sale. Permit prices have fluctuated wildly over the years, but as more and more have moved into the hands of people who invested significant amounts of money to buy them, the pressure from commercial fishermen to maintain the lion’s share of the Alaska catch has steadily intensified.
Those fishermen argue that it’s not fair to shift catches from long-established commercial fisheries to subsistence, personal-use and sport fisheries just because the Alaska population is growing, and tourism has become a viable business in the north.
Non-commercial interests counter that it’s not fair to give commercial fishing interests 95 percent of the state’s fish just because commercial fishermen can afford expensive permits and high-paid lobbyists.
Of late, the commercial interests have been winning the debate. In March of last year, the Board of Fish shifted some of the Cook Inlet salmon catch from non-commercial interests to commercial interests with Board Chairman John Jensen observing that he wanted to “allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
Cook Inlet, the water body at Anchorage’s front door, is the site of the most contentious and longest-running fish war in the state. Jensen is a commercial fisherman from Petersburg in the Alaska Panhandle.
He is at the center of the latest blow-up over the power of commercial fishing interests, but the dispute itself revolves around a sport fishery in which the catch is, by Alaska standards, tiny.
When the Fish Board met in Sitka, just a little west of Jensen’s hometown, in January, the board chairman pushed for a radical cap on the harvest of black cod by non-resident anglers. Black cod, or sablefish, were once considered a trash fish in most of the state, but some anglers in recent years have begun keeping some.
The catch has been driven in part by onerous bag limits on rod-and-reel caught halibut in the Southeast region and in part by shifting culinary standards.
Chef Gabriela “Cámara made rockfish ceviche and black cod adobo tacos. The black cod had been wrapped in fibers from cactus leaves, buried and pit cooked with the cactus; it was rich and smoky and totally sublime, but I balked at calling these wonderful fish ‘trash,'” Maria Finn wrote at Civil Eats in 2015. “I talked to her about it, and she agreed 100 percent. But the question is: What else should we call them? Underutilized isn’t sexy, bycatch is too political. Fish-without-a-market? Under-loved?”
Under-loved might be a term still applied to the fish in the Southeast sport fishery. Residents and non-resident anglers combine to catch just over 12,000 black cod per year in the “southern southeast inside” sport fishery the board decided to limit, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game. The commercial catch in the area is over 502,000.
“From 2011-15, the sablefish bycatch mortality was higher than the guided recreational catch,” said Samantha Weinstein of SEAGO, a regional charter group. Bycatch mortality is a measure of the fish escaping commercial fishing gear only to die. Some might consider that waste, but in the ocean there really is no waste. Everything becomes food for something else.
The waste in this case is more likely in catching the fish commercially and shipping them south to be eaten instead of flying fishermen north to Alaska to catch their own fish and take them home to eat. A host of studies of fisheries around the world have concluded that labor-intensive sport fisheries reap more value from the resource than efficient commercial fisheries.
Whether that is the case with the black-cod fishery in question is, however, an unknown. The Alaska Board of Fisheries undertakes no analysis of economic impacts before deciding fishery allocations.
In this case, the Board decided to arbitrarily impose a four-black cod per day limit on non-resident fishermen with a seasonal limit of only eight fish even though state fisheries biologists said there was no biological reason to do so.
Jensen didn’t care.
“I think it’s time to make everybody have limits,” Sitka’s KCAW radio reported him saying. “The personal use people have limits. The commercial fishery have limits. Why can’t we just give it to everybody. The stock has been declining for quite some time. I know the department doesn’t have any biological concerns. But the trend is down, so I’m going to support annual limits.”
Three other board members with ties to commercial fishing interests voted with him to pass the measure four to three.
“The commercial fleet argued that there was cause to put an annual limit in place…because this is a ‘fully utilized’ fishery, as they are allocated and use 98 percent of the harvest and paid a significant amount for their permits,” Weinstein said. “This is dangerously close to, if not actually, arguing that this fishery is no longer available for the common use of the people.”
Somerville, who was at the board meeting, saw no “if not actually.” The vote was to him the simple privatization of an Alaska common-property resource, or what was once and is legally still supposed to be a common-property resource.
“While about 1 percent is harvested by the non-commercial uses, including non-residents, the industry was adamant that the fishery was 100 percent allocated and no additional allocation should be given to the sport or subsistence harvest,” he wrote in his email. “Frankly, I was stunned. Although we have all seen this abuse in other competitive fisheries, this was clearly the worst I had witnessed.”
What happened, he argued, should serve as a wake-up call for every non-commercial fisherman in the state.
“…The public needs to realize that their access to their resources has been severely compromised,” he wrote.
A 50-50 split for commercial and non-commercial fisheries, he added, was just a starting point for discussion. It could be adjusted up or down, he added, and in fisheries where the commercial harvest is in need of significant reduction, changes should be instituted over the long term.
This is the full text of his what Somerville suggested in his email:
“Fisheries subjected to limited entry permits cannot be allocated more than 50% of a harvestable stock or stocks unless the other common property non-commercial users, including licensed non-resident users, are unable to utilize the remainder of the harvestable stock or stocks. The Department of Fish and Game may be delegated the authority by the Board of Fisheries to make in-season adjustments to allocate under-utilized stocks and provide for specific short-term adjustments to support the maximum sustained yield of a specific stock.” If the commercial fishery is unable to utilize their Board of Fisheries authorized allocation, the surplus allocation may be reallocated to the other common property non-commercial users. For those fisheries where the commercial harvest consistently exceeds 50% and the documented non-commercial demand forces the Board of Fisheries to reduce the commercial harvest, the reduction in the commercial harvest will be systematically reduced over a 10 year period. The State is authorized under these circumstances to initiate a limited entry permit buy-back process.”