Alaska Board of Fisheries member Fritz Johnson, a commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay, has resigned his seat on the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute (ASMI) removing one of several possible conflicts of interest haunting the Board for a month.
“You can tell (people) they don’t need to fret,” he said by telephone from Seattle where he was tending his daughter who has been recovering from a bone marrow transplant. He decided, he said, that with his daughter ill he doesn’t have time to serve on both panels.
Complaints about Board conflicts have been bubbling since the entity which oversees the management of state fisheries in mid-October refused to put a cap on Alaska’s version of fish farming pending a review of whether privately grown hatchery fish are harming wild fish.
Unlike Norway, the world leader in salmon production, Alaska prohibits raising salmon in net pens, but it allows private, nonprofit companies to take eggs from returning salmon, incubate them in about two dozen hatcheries, grow the fish until they are ready to go to sea, and then releases them into ocean.
The process is called “salmon ranching,” and it has made Alaska into the West Coast leader in hatchery fish, according to the North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission. The state produces about two and a half times more hatchery fish than the combined total of the states of California, Oregon, Idaho and Washington plus the Canadian province of British Columbia.
Alaska’s 1.6 billion salmon dump into the North Pacific Ocean in 2017 plus another 300 million young fish from Lower 48 state hatcheries pushed the U.S. to the role of world leader in ocean ranching.
The Alaska fish have created a $125 million per year business in Prince William Sound.
Protecting fish or fish sales?
ASMI is in the business of promoting the sale of those and other Alaska salmon, while the Fish Board is in tasked with protecting salmon runs from fishermen of all sorts to avoid overfishing. The Board is also regularly in the position of settling disputes between commercial fishermen using different gear-types to harvest salmon, and between commercial and non-commercial fishermen over who gets to catch what and how much.
Johnson said Friday that he didn’t see a problem in serving on both the ASMI board and the Fish Board, but some subsistence, personal-use dipnet and sport fishermen raised questions about conflicts after the Board rejected a request from the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) and a coalition of other conservation groups to cap hatchery production in the Sound until more is known about straying salmon and interactions between young wild and hatchery fish mixing in the Gulf of Alaska.
The Prince William Sound Aquaculture Corporation (PWSAC) and the Valdez Fisheries Development Association (VDFA) have used hatcheries to build the Sound salmon catch from a historic 3 million fish per year in the 1950s, 1960 and 1970s to 45 million per year in recent times.
A 2017 study of the Exxon Valdez oil spill stumbled on evidence high hatchery numbers of pink salmon depress sockeye salmon returns to the Copper River, and the KRSA started asking questions about whether those hatchery fish might also be involved in declines of Cook Inlet sockeye.
Alaska Department of Fish and Game scientists told the Board they don’t know if increasing numbers of hatchery fish are depressing returns of wild fish. Given that there was no firm evidence of harm, the Board approved a 10 million egg boost for the VFDA hatchery.
After the meeting, some KRSA members and Nancy Hillstrand, a Homer fish processor and salmon activist, complained that the decision turned on its head the “precautionary principle” historically followed by the Board and state fishery managers.
The precautionary principle says that if science is in doubt state officials should take the action that best protects wild salmon resources. The Board did the opposite and voted in favor of protecting the financial interests of the hatcheries and the commercial fishermen who support them.
That action raised questions about Board conflicts. As a member of ASMI, Johnson regularly attended ASMI board meetings with representatives of two salmon processors with major operations in the Sound.
Meanwhile, Board member Alan Cain, a retired Fish and Wildlife Trooper, had a personal services contract with Fish and Game, which had first OK’d the stocking increase, and board member John Jensen was newly appointed to the North Pacific Fisheries Management Council (NPFMC), a federal fishery management group, while sitting on the Board, a state management agency which sometimes has a different agenda than the NPFMC.
Cain could not be reached for this story. Jensen did not return a phone call.
Critics questioned how Cain could possibly vote against a hatchery plan approved by Fish and Game when his second income depended on doing business with the agency. Jensen, as Board chairman last year, announced the Board was taking fish away from Cook Inlet personal-use dipnetters and anglers and giving them to commercial fishermen, and was on record telling a public radio station in his hometown of Petersburg this summer that one of his key NPFMC priorities was to “deal with sustainability of the commercial fishing industry.”
KRSA executive director Ricky Gease, among others, questioned how Jensen could fairly weigh the interests of sport, personal-use and subsistence fishermen when the priority of his focus was maintaining commercial fisheries.
By laws both state and federal, subsistence fisheries are mandated a legal priority, but the state has sometimes ignored that. When a weak run of Chinook salmon was forecast for the Copper River in 2017, the state put limits on subsistence fishermen in river to in order to provide greater fishing opportunity for commercial fishermen off the mouth of the river.
The Board has regularly come under fire for its commercial slant.
“It is contentious,” Johnson admitted.
It has only become more so as Alaska has grown from a territory of 225,000 residents with many commercial fishermen to today’s state of 740,000 with comparatively few commercial fishermen.
A warmer ocean and better salmon management has helped the state grow the salmon harvest from 41 million per year in the 1950s to more than 200 million per year over the last five years, but that hasn’t quieted disputes over who gets to catch them.
A small minority of commercial fishermen harvesting more than 98 percent of the state’s fish and wildlife resources with noncommercial interests getting the scraps inevitably causes resentment.
A “very small percentage of resources…are being harvested for subsistence and personal use,” Fish and Game’s Meredith Marchioni concluded after analyzing statewide harvests. “Commercial fishing takes 98.3 percent of all harvested resources in Alaska. Subsistence and personal use take 1.1 percent and sport harvest takes 0.6 percent.”
Tensions were only heightened by departing Gov. Bill Walker’s naming a former commercial fisherman to head Fish and Game, an agency historically run by biologists trained in the environmental sciences; appointing to the Fish Board the executive director of a Cook Inlet fishing lobby who claimed to be living in Alaska while also living in Montana; and embracing commercial fishermen in the Inlet – the site of the most contentious fishery in the state – to the chagrin of non-commercial fishermen.
Commercial fishermen are now a panic about the election of Republican Mike Dunleavy as the state’s new governor. Dunleavy is a resident of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough, which has for years been warring with Inlet commercial fishermen who intercept hundreds of thousands of salmon bound for tributaries to the Susitna and Matanuska rivers.
Dunleavy angered commercial fishermen when he failed to attend a fisheries debate in Kodiak. And with Walker having set a new standard for gubernatorial messing in salmon management, commercial interest have legitimate concerns to worry, although the battles over salmon in Alaska are largely localized to a few small areas, most notably Cook Inlet.
The Fish Board is a rather unique panel set up by the early Alaska Legislature to try to remove politics from salmon management. Board members are appointed by the governor, but must be approved the Legislature.
Over the years, the Board has had greater or lesser success at working out compromises between various salmon-interests groups, but compromises that satisfy everyone have been hard to come by.