Alaska Gov. Bill Walker got most of the Hatfields and some of the McCoys of Cook Inlet salmon fishing together for a sitdown in Anchorage on Friday, and Commissioner of Fish and Game Sam Cotten pronounced it a good thing.
It is always positive for warring parties to talk to each other, said Cotten, a smooth-talking, former state legislator from Eagle River.
No doubt about that, but there is a legitimate question to be asked about who pays for a feel-good get-together of no value at a time when the state is cash strapped. Craigmedred.news has been asking Fish and Game for weeks what the governor’s Cook Inlet Task Force is costing.
As yet, no answer, though Cotten admitted the state is paying the mediators, and clearly the many members of the agency’s regional staff attending the Friday gathering had better things to do with their time Friday than explain the basics of fisheries management to several dozen people at the Egan Center.
There is no doubt there would be merit to the Walker administration trying to mediate the long-running Cook Inlet fish war if the governor had any authority over fisheries regulations in the state of Alaska – he doesn’t – and if the governor had the trust of all parties involved – he doesn’t.
Walker is seen as closely aligned with the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the region’s most powerful commercial organization. He has met regularly with the organization since becoming governor. He appointed longtime UCIDA executive director Roland Maw to the Board of Fisheries only to have the appointment go south.
Maw withdrew from the Board before being confirmed because the state had begun an investigation that would eventually lead to felony charges accusing Maw of stealing from the state’s Permanent Fund. After Maw was busted, a smiling Walker happily posed for a group photo with UCIDA board members and Maw, and the governor has continued to fraternize with Maw as he drags his case out with procedural efforts to avoid a trial.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA), the most active sport fishing group in the state, labeled the Walker task force a sham and refused to participate. Walker made no effort to bring the organization to the table, made no calls to the KRSA executive director or board members to try to lobby them into attending.
How does one negotiate peace with warring parties without getting all of the warring parties at the negotiating table?
But that is in some ways the smaller of the problems this show faces.
No legal authority
The bigger problem is that even if Cotten and Walker could negotiate peace between the Hatfields and McCoys (more on that below), the governor has no authority to institute a peace plan.
By law, the state Boards of Fisheries and Game rule over fish and wildlife management in the 49th state, and the Boards are under no obligation to listen to any governor.
Some board members have in the past put their positions above their principles and bent to the wishes of governors in order maintain seats on the board, but others have bucked efforts to be ordered around by the chief executive.
The Alaska system of fish and wildlife management was set up to encourage them to do so. Legally, the governor can try to coerce the boards into action, but he can’t tell the boards what to do.
All of this dates back to the very first Alaska legislature creating the very first Alaska Board of Fish and Game just after Statehood. State law was later amended to split that board into two – the Board of Fisheries and the Board of Game – but the boards remained firmly rooted in the intent of the state’s founders.
The intent was create an independent entity to provide a more judicial than political setting in which to mediate the allocation of fish between gear groups. The original dueling entities of the day were primarily commercial – purse seiners, drift netters, trollers, and set netters – but the disputes between them were no different from those today between commercial and non-commerical fishermen in Cook Inlet.
Everyone always wants a bigger share of the catch. Humans are like coastal Alaska bears; they all want to get fat on salmon.
From the Southeast Alaska purse seiner grossing six-figures per summer to the frugal Kenai River personal-use dipnetter working to stuff a freezer with sockeye salmon caught at the cost of less than $1 per pound to the fishing guide earning five-figures steering tourist anglers around Alaska, the biggest issue driving allocation is economics.
Yes, there are some who fish for fun. They are catch-and-release fishermen who are regularly disparaged by all other fishermen. Cotten on Friday made a point of how much he personally enjoys chasing after salmon with rod and reel, and he believes there are plenty of sport fishing opportunities for anyone who wants to catch fish that way.
He also has a pricey riverboat and a six-figure income that makes it easy to move around the region to find the fish, and there are usually salmon to be found somewhere. Expensive toys are great for Alaska recreation. If you live in Anchorage at the head of Cook Inlet and own your own helicopter, for instance, it’s not hard to find a place to catch salmon most days in the summer no matter how spotty the salmon returns.
Most rod and reel fishermen don’t have helicopters, however, or for that matter boats. They’re constrained to roadside streams, and how many salmon make it back into those streams is heavily influenced by how many salmon are intercepted – or not – by the commercial fishery in Cook Inlet.
Heart of the issue
The “curtain of death” some have accused commercial gillnetters of hanging in the Inlet is at the heart of the fish war. Commercial fishermen want as many salmon as possible hung by their gills in that monofilament web so they can make money. Non-commercial fishermen want as many salmon as possible to escape the nets to make it back into rivers and streams where they can be caught with dipnets or fish wheels or rod and reel.
Non-commercial fishermen are generally happy when the streams and rivers are plugged with salmon, but that seldom happens. Commercial fishermen are almost never happy with how many salmon they’ve caught because they always see some way in which they could have caught more.
And they get downright angry at being expected to share with the unwashed masses a larger portion of what they see as their historic, harvest entitlement. The problem, they argue, is not that they catch too many fish; it is that the state that has doubled in population since 1975 with most of the newcomers settling in the Anchorage Metropolitan Area.
Most of the newcomers are non-commercial fishermen, many of whon want to catch salmon in the dozens of streams and rivers of the Kenai Peninsula or the vast Matanuska-Susitna Borough, and salmon numbers in all of these waterways are dependent in parts large and small on how many salmon are intercepted in the Inlet.
Long ago, the Legislature wrote into law some pretty good criteria to guide the allocation of these fish among the various fishermen who want them. The criteria have been largely ignored by the Board of Fisheries over the decades, and they weren’t even mentioned Friday at the Walker-sponsored Anchorage meeting.
“(1) the history of each personal use, sport, guided sport, and commercial fishery;
“(2) the number of residents and nonresidents who have participated in each fishery in the past and the number of residents and nonresidents who can reasonably be expected to participate in the future;
“(3) the importance of each fishery for providing residents the opportunity to obtain fish for personal and family consumption;
“(4) the availability of alternative fisheries resources;
“(5) the importance of each fishery to the economy of the state;
“(6) the importance of each fishery to the economy of the region and local area in which the fishery is located;
“(7) the importance of each fishery in providing recreational opportunities for residents and nonresidents.”
Early Alaska legislators don’t get the credit they deserve for suggesting allocation standards to encourage the Board of Fisheries to evolve salmon harvests over time. Unfortunately, there has been little evolution in Cook Inlet.
For two decades, the allocation issue has been high centered on “history” with commercial fishing interests bemoaning the loss of the “commercial fishing lifestyle” or the loss of “fishing time” even as they became steadily more efficient at catching more fish during shorter fishing periods.
The commercial fishing lobby has been hugely successful in hanging onto the lion’s share of the harvest by employing this tactic as the population of the Anchorage Metropolitan Area has steadily climbed to a modern-day population of more than 400,000 people.
The image of commercial fisherman as the good guys in the white rain gear is strong in Alaska. Even as limited entry permits in the Inlet steadily shift toward the hands of hobbyists looking to make some extra money in the summer, the image remains of the hard-working Old Man of the Sea headed down to the shore to fish as he has for all of his life like his father before him and his father before him.
Only it doesn’t work that way.
The state originally gave permits to Inlet fishermen in the 1970s. The permits became the property of the original recipients. Most of the original owners sold their permits long ago. Some of the permits have changed hands many, many times.
People sell them because they get tired of fishing. People buy them because they want to try commercial fishing, which indeed is something of a seasonal lifestyle. But almost every small business owner can say the same of his business on a yearly basis. Work defines people’s lives.
Lifestyle is the least of the criteria the Board should be looking at. In the interest of the state’s floundering economy – “the number of residents and nonresidents who can reasonably be expected to participate in the future,” “the importance of each fishery to the economy of the state,” and “the importance of each fishery to the economy of the region and local area in which the fishery is located” – should be at the top of the allocation list, but these standards have been ignored for years.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has no economist. The agency provides the Board no economic information to guide allocation decisions. And the Board has rarely asked for that sort of information.
No attempt has ever been made to quantify “the number of residents and nonresidents who can reasonably be expected to participate in the future,” although the number of nonresidents that could be enticed to come north would be nice to know. Tourism is one state industry with growth potential.
Commercial fishing in the Inlet, on the other hand, is a business in need of downsizing. Even most of the commercial fishermen involved now agree that there are too few fish returning and too many permits for anyone to expect to make a living off the Inlet anymore.
The good old days of commercial sockeye catches averaging near 4 million per year are over. The Inlet appears to be headed back toward the less than 1.5 million average of the 1960s and 1970s. It didn’t even come close to getting that this year.
As for “the importance of each fishery for providing residents the opportunity to obtain fish for personal and family consumption,” the state has never tried to quantify the directive. Fish and Game barely knows how many salmon Alaskans catch for this purpose on the Kenai.
And commercial fishermen involved in Inlet fisheries insist the catch is already too big no matter its size. They rail against unidentified dipnetters who overstuff their freezers with sockeye only to later throw fish away.
“Why do they think they deserve to catch the fish (and) not use ’em,” as one fisherman wrote in a letter to the Legislature. “I see them rotting in garbage dumps in the spring time. After sitting in the freezer not being used , they just get the thrill of catching but not using any of it.”
Does some dipnetted salmon get wasted?
“In the United States, food waste is estimated at between 30-40 percent of the food supply,” according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Even if the effort required of dipnetters to harvest salmon makes them more conscious of food waste than the average America, they are sure to waste a lot.
With catches sometimes near 400,000 sockeye in the dipnet fishery, the waste could approach 80,000 sockeye per year even if the dipnetters are twice as concerned as the average American about avoiding waste.
But if the national figures on waste are applied to the commercial fishery, it is responsible for far more waste. In America’s pile of wasted food, seafood waste is particularly high, researchers from John Hopkins University reported in a 2015 study published in the journal Global Environmental Change.
“We estimate that 40 to 47 percent of the edible U.S. seafood supply went uneaten in this period,” the wrote. “The greatest portions of this loss occurred at the levels of consumers (in and out of home) (51–63% of loss attributed to consumption).”
At that rate, about 20 to 30 percent of the commercially caught Cook Inlet salmon shipped south are being wasted after they reach market. With the 10-year-average catch of sockeye at 3.5 million, that would amount to 700,000 to more than 1 million sockeye being sent to landfills in the Lower 48.
At a catch of 2 million, the commercial waste would still dwarf any dipnet waste. But the waste issue is a red herring.
Most commercial fishermen don’t really care about it anymore than most dipnetters or anglers. It’s simply a political talking point with which to try to smear the opposition.
Non-commercial fishermen resort to similar propaganda when they contend that to prevent overfishing commercial fishermen need be kept out of the Inlet until spawning needs are met in the many rivers along the waterway.
Cotten was upset the local newspaper, the Anchorage Daily News, recently ran a letter to the editor claiming this is the way the fisheries were managed in the past, and the way they should be managed now.
The first never happened, and the latter is not only impractical, it’s biological foolishness. Classically, salmon returns form a bell curve; they start low, build to a high and then taper off.
To maintain natural runs, fisheries managers try to control harvests so they generally conform to the shape of the bell. If they don’t manage that way, they can distort the shape of a natural return and/or risk grossly exceeding in-river goals for spawners, which generally leads to lower production per spawner in future years.
Some Alaska rivers already have chronic problems with over-escapement. A 2007 Fish and Game study found over-escapement a regular occurrence in Bristol Bay, the state’s biggest sockeye fishery. The problem has only grown in the Bay since then, but there is no evidence it has suppressed overall salmon returns.
Some Cook Inlet streams, meanwhile, now end up choked with unwanted pink and chum salmon.
When commercial fishermen Dave Martin and others rant about the need for “abundance-based management” as some did Saturday, they have a good point. But there is no practical, legal way to make that work using indiscriminate gillnet fisheries, and no reason for subsistence, personal-use and sport fishermen waiting for fish behind the commercial nets to believe commercial fishermen wouldn’t take advantage of special fisheries for under-harvested pinks and chums.
It’s simple economics. If pinks are going for 25 cents per pound and sockeye and coho are at a dollar or more, what commercial fishermen would be so foolish as to focus on pinks when he could use a pink-opening as an excuse to land a lot of sockeye or coho as “accidental” catch?
Larry Engel, a former state sport fish biologist and Susitna Valley angler attending the Walker meeting, said he’d be fine with a fish trap at the mouth of the Little Susitna River to take out a bunch of the excess chum and pink salmon that have returned there in recent years.
But state law would have to be amended to let someone run such a trap, which could allow sockeye, coho and Chinook salmon to pass upriver unharmed with chums and pinks removed for processing. And any attempt at ending the ban on traps would run into strong opposition from commercial fishermen dead set against any competition in the marketplace and worried about the history.
One of the first acts of the Legislature after Statehood was to ban traps because most of them were owned by Seattle-based fishing interests that dictated how the fishing business was run in Alaska. Now nearly the whole Alaska fishing business is owned by Seattle-based fishing interests, some of which are owned in turn by Japanese fish companies that help determine how the business runs.
And the more the salmon fishing business overall shifts from wild-caught to farmed fish, the more leverage those companies have over Alaska fishermen. Farms (not counting more than 100 million Alaska, Japanese and Russian ranched, hatchery fish) already produce 75 percent of the salmon eaten in the world today, and the volume of farmed salmon caps the price of wild-caught Alaska fish.
Real economic dangers
Alaska commercial fishermen still get a bit of a premium on their fish from the sea, but the premium only goes so far above the base set by increasingly efficient farms. Commercial fishermen in the 49th state have long relished their self-vision as the cowboys of the sea.
Unfortunately, they are looking more and more like they are destined go the way of the cowboys.
They are on the wrong side of the technology curve. Norwegian fish farmers are now experimenting with facial recognition hardware to identify each fish in their pens and monitor fish health weekly.
“If the fish shows signs of a problem, it is then guided into a holding pen for individual treatment,” writes Jason Daley at Smithsonian Magazine. “The iFarm tool is especially helpful in dealing with sea lice, a parasite which has become huge problem in the salmon industry, infecting fish farms in Norway, the U.S., Canada, Chile and Scotland. The lice, which are a type of crustacean, cost the salmon farming industry $1 billion per year.”
A $1 billion per year cost cut would enable salmon farmers in a highly competitive market to ratchet their prices down a little more. Alaska salmon prices would inevitably drop in response. Commercially caught Alaska salmon appear destined to steadily devalue as the efficiency of salmon farms steadily grows.
Alaska commercial fishermen face bigger problems in the near future than Inlet salmon allocation, but they are not going to yield a single Inlet fish to feed tourism or residents fisheries which might produce a bigger economic bang per fish. Why would they?
Since not long after Europeans showed up in the north and started fishing commercially, commercial fishermen have caught most of the fish in the Inlet. Thirteen hundred permit holders continue to catch the vast majority of salmon in the Inlet while tens of thousands of dipnetters and anglers make do with what is leftover.
The inevitable end result is a classic battle between the haves and have-nots. That’s not going to end until the state comes up with a reasonable and equitable way to begin phasing fishermen out of the commercial fishery with the idea of transitioning some of the commercial allocation to other fisheries in recognition of the social and economic realities of the day.
But few want to dig down into that difficult issue. Too many are emotionally locked into protecting their economic interests of the moment.
And the Walker administration, so far, seems most interested in pandering to those emotions than talking about how to solve the real problems going forward.