KENAI RIVER – Rain was sprinkling the mouth of Alaska’s most fought-over river on Monday as a hundred or so Alaskans probed the water with dipnets hoping to scoop up some of the sockeye salmon returning in bits and spurts.
Offshore a lone seal cruised the river mouth looking for breakfast as well. Back in the day, the animal would have had a bounty on its head, and it probably wouldn’t have survived for long.
“The (Territorial) Legislature was bullish on the bounty program, both in response to citizen concerns and because its members felt that salmon constituted an important part of the harbor seals’ diet,” a National Park Service notes in a history of pre-Statehood seal hunting along the Kenai coast.
A scientific investigation in the mid-1940s concluded salmon were but a small part of the seals’ diet, but that didn’t do the seals much good. Losses estimated at “2 to 10 percent of the fish caught (by commercial fishermen) or even more” off the mouths of the Copper River near Cordova and the Taku River near Juneau led to a war on seals, the history says.
With the seals “‘a costly nuisance’ to several of the area’s gill net fishermen,” the history says, “the Alaska Territorial Department of Fisheries…recognized that the bounty…was an ineffective way to control seal populations and thus reduce damage to the territory’s fish runs. It therefore responded to area-specific complaints by instituting a small-scale program of seal control. In 1951, a summertime employee was stationed at the mouth of both the Stikine and Copper rivers, where rifles were used to dispatch harbor seals. ”
Over the next eight years, gunners managed to kill more than 30,000 seals off the mouth of the Copper. No one complained. It was generally viewed as a good thing.
Alaska salmon fishermen are covetous of their fish. In territorial days, Dolly Varden char and bald eagles also made the list of salmon eaters that need to be killed off.
Fishermen have come a long way in Alaska since then. They are now more receptive toward natural predators, and only want to kill each other.
That is an exaggeration, but there are reasons the Cook Inlet “fish wars” are called wars. Fishermen – all fishermen – have a serious selfish streak. With the sockeye sputtering into the Kenai today, there were some on the beach whining about the Inlet’s commercial fishermen who have to date caught slightly over 666,000 sockeye.
That might sound like a lot, but it’s only 35 percent of the pre-season forecast for a harvest of 1.9 million, and the forecast is looking suspect. With the Kenai sockeye return near its midpoint, the catch is below expectations and in-river returns are tracking well below the trend line needed to meet the minimum spawning goal.
The hope is that the fish are just late, as they were in 2017. Last year, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game hit the panic button and closed commercial fisheries with only 306,000 sockeye in the river on July 22. Two days later, the fish swarmed the river. Within six days the number of fish in-river had more than doubled.
State fisheries biologists are now gambling on a replay. Commercial fishermen were at work in the Inlet on Monday even though the July 22 count this year was more than 11,000 lower than last year.
Commercial fisheries management is not an exact science. It is more an art. Dipnetters familiar with history were nonetheless concerned, and at the Facebook page of the Alaska Outdoor Journal, Gary Barnes, who has monitored Kenai fishing for decades, went off.
“Of course from the tens of thousands of Alaskans and visitors’ view point the announcement of all comm nets fishing on Monday was not something any of us wanted to hear,” he wrote. “For those who want to chime in with a comment about getting one day of fishing on the river or a day or two of dipping is enough for us, let’s change the commercial season to ONE DAY a year too and see how you like it. We’ve added 500,000 more Alaskan mouths to feed since Limited Entry and have not been provided a proportional amount of the salmon fisheries based on our population growth. Commercial fishing has completely stifled economic development on the Kenai Peninsula since 1974 when Limited Entry fixed the number of boats and beach sites to an exact static number that has not added ONE ADDITIONAL JOB to the Peninsula since 1974. Same people on the boats, same people on the beaches, same number of people on the slime lines at the processors. And in addition the largest and most notable fish cannery.”
Mine, mine, mine!
The reaction was pretty much to be expected given that nearly all Alaska salmon fishermen share one thing in common.
Commercial, subsistence, personal-use dipnet, or sport, they hold to the view that “it’s all about me.” And this being the time when Cook Inlet, the big body of water that laps at the shore of Alaska’s largest city, is building toward the peak of the sockeye season, most of them are sure to be angry at somebody if there isn’t a salmon on every line and at least 100 in the boat.
For three out of four of Alaska’s classes of fishermen, there is one big, obvious target, too: the commercial fishery. Commercial fishermen are easy to pick on, because they are small in number – about 1,100 active in the drift and set gillnet fisheries in Upper Cook Inlet – and because they catch most of the Inlet’s salmon.
But there’s plenty of disdain to go around.
Many of the sports find the over-the-top blood lust and sometimes ignorance of the dipnet beaches disgusting. There were some dipnetters today wrestling with identifying a 6-pound salmon with spots one of them caught.
Sockeye have no spots. They thought the fish might be a king, which must by law be released. So they decided to play it safe and roll the salmon back into the river. It was a pink salmon.
Pinks have large, oval spots. Kings look more like they were sprinkled with coarse pepper. The two fish are not hard to tell apart if you’ve seen a few of each, but for people who think of dipnetting as something akin to a free day at the supermarket, labels would be helpful.
These aren’t people interested in fishing. These are people attracted to the free-for-the-taking salmon. And there are some, maybe too many, who think of the fish as another of those things (like the Permanent Fund Dividend) they are owed for hanging on in the Godforsaken frozen north.
Some were appalled tourists – TOURISTS! – upstream on the Kenai River might be catching more sockeye salmon than the dipnet crowd and shipping the fish south in coolers.
The fish-filled coolers that go through the Ted Stevens International Airport every summer are source of derision among many Alaskans. Subsistence fishermen especially detest this unless the fish are going home with their relatives.
It’s a family thing. Every Alaska fishermen has in him, or her, a bit of the commercial fishermen who thinks salmon exist wholly for the benefit of commercial fishermen.
Lost to nearly everyone are the words of the State Constitution:
“It is the policy of the State to encourage the settlement of its land and the development of its resources by making them available for maximum use consistent with the public interest.
“The legislature shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.
Let’s review for a moment: “Maximum use consistent with the public interest…all natural resources…for the maximum benefit of its people.”
And then let’s consider one pertinent fact: Most Alaskans don’t fish.
There are a few hundred qualified subsistence users on the Kenai Peninsula and in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area – two areas home to about 460,000 of the 740,000 people who call Alaska home. That’s nearly two-thirds of the state’s population.
Just under 1,100 of these people, 388 drifters and 690 setnetters, plus 241 non-residents, fish limited entry permits in Upper Cook Inlet, according to the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission (CFEC).
Upper Cook Inlet is the most hotly contested fishery in Alaska. Depending on the year, anywhere from 30,000 to 36,000 Alaska residents pick up free, personal-use permits to dipnet 25 or more, depending on family size, sockeye salmon from the Kenai or Kasilof rivers or Fish Creek.
Angler numbers are harder to quantify. Only statewide numbers are available. Statewide, about 162,500 people buy one. How many of them actually fish is unclear. But, for the sake of argument, let’s assume they all fish.
By this measure, 22 percent of Alaskans fish with rod and reel. Five percent of them also pick up a Cook Inlet dipnet permit (one needs to be a licensed resident angler to obtain that free permit). And about a tenth of a percent in Cook Inlet are commercial fishermen, presuming most commercial fishermen also buy a sport-fishing license.
Clearly, there is no way the standard of the “maximum use consistent with the public interest…for the maximum benefit of (the state’s) people” is being met simply by seeing to it that all of these folks catch fish.
Even if they all catch all they want – which isn’t going to happen, especially given that the commercial demand is unlimited – 78 percent of the Alaska population is likely to come up way short on “maximum benefit.”
Where salmon meet the “maximum benefit” for the majority of Alaskans isn’t in the fisheries; it’s in the economy. The more salmon boost the economy – no matter how they do that – the more the average Alaskan benefits.
The economists at the Alaska Department of Fish and Game could probably define the size of these benefits…if there were economists at that state agency. There are none. There have never been any.
From a biological standpoint, the state has spent decades worrying about the maximum sustained yield of its fisheries, primarily to benefit commercial fishermen – the state’s most powerful special interest.
From an economic standpoint, the state has wholly ignored maximum sustained yield. Ask Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten how the state can get the maximum economic return on its salmon resource, and he’ll likely assure you it’s by maximizing the commercial catch.
Why? Because he’s a former commercial fishermen clueless as to where the highest economic value of Alaska salmon is to be found. But then we’re all clueless, because the state has neglected its responsibility to manage for “maximum benefit” to all Alaskans.
Personally, I will confess to the one-time belief that the dipnet fishery provided the least benefit and should be restricted accordingly. Then a commercial fishing friend started ranting about the four-wheelers and boats bought by dipnetters and all the dipnets sold at Costco in Anchorage and all the gas wasted by people driving to the Kenai to dipnet.
And suddenly it was logical to wonder this: How much does get spent on that fishery? How much does the average dipnetter end up paying per pound for his or her catch? If he or she is spending more money per pound for salmon in Alaska than it would cost to buy the fish from commercial fishermen, the Alaska economy wins.
If that’s the case, the state should by increasing the dipnet harvest right up to the point where commercial fish are worth more.
Old studies have already documented the high-value of sport-caught fish. Tourists spend a ridiculous amount of money to come here and catch fish. If any of them come out ahead on their Alaska vacation, it can’t be many. The vast majority of them would be better advised – on a purely personal economics level – to stay home and buy their salmon in the fish market.
But if they’re dumb enough to come here to catch what amounts to $50 per pound sockeye to take home instead buying it for $9.99 at their neighborhood grocery, the state should be managing fisheries to ensure there are enough sockeye in Alaska rivers to encourage these fools to keep coming north.
One can only hope that the state one day grows up enough to figure this out, because what Alaska has endured in its fisheries for years now can only be described as economic mismanagement.
Barnes is overstating when he says “commercial fishing has completely stifled economic development on the Kenai Peninsula since 1974,” but there is a grain of truth there. Commercial fishing coupled with bigger salmon runs did pump money into the Kenai economy, but those days are over.
The average gross earning of driftnetters in the Inlet peaked at an average of more than $268,000 per permit in 1988, according to the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission. The ’80s were, in general, good to drifters. When corrected for inflation, that $268,000 translates into more than $583,000 in today’s dollars.
Drift earnings have, however, fallen a long way since then. They rallied a little in the current decade, but average gross earnings in the drift gillnet fishery have been falling since 2011, according to the CFEC.
The 493 of 569 permit holders fishing that year averaged almost $65,000 for the season. The 581 fishing in 2015 were down to under $19,500. The situation has gotten a little better since then, but not all that much. There aren’t many drifters getting rich.
Setnetters have comparatively lost less – barring the disastrous season of 2012 when they were largely shut down to protect king salmon – but then again they didn’t start in as good a position as the drifters. Average earnings were almost $39,000 for the 548 of 736 permit holders fishing in 2011. That fell to $26,000 in 2015, according to the CFEC.
Setnetters can largely blame themselves for the $5,389 average gross per permit in 2012; they’ve refused to embrace changes in fishing techniques that hold promise for protecting king salmon so they can fish red salmon – Cook Inlet’s commercial money fish. Some setters think they’re owed kings because the fish are valuable.
But we’ve now reached the point where there aren’t enough kings to fulfill the promise of limited entry for them. When limited entry was begun, it was intended to make commercial salmon fishing into a viable business, and it has for commercial fishermen who hold multiple permits and fish multiple areas.
For many, if not most, however, commercial fishing is back to being a part-time summer job.
And if the state is harming other businesses to support these part-time jobs, Barnes has a point. Either way, the 49th state is long past the point when it should have come up with a plan for wise economic management of state fisheries, but then that would take some leadership.
And Alaska these days is woefully short on leadership.