What would normally be a quiet March meeting of the Alaska Board of Fisheries to discuss generic statewide issues is shaping up to be a battle royal over a proposal that could boost the number of salmon available to average Alaskans.
“The Kenai River Sportfishing Association is leading a well-funded online campaign…based heavily on emotion, inaccurate statistics, and seeks to place personal-use fisheries at a higher priority for allocation than commercial and sport,” the Cordova District United Fishermen warned in an action alert to its members this week.
It urged them to flood the Board with emails and to try to attend the Board meeting. Other commercial fishing organizations are equally gearing up to put asses in the seats for the March 9-12 Anchorage gathering in the hopes a show of hostile fishermen can turn back what is viewed as a precedent-setting measure that could lead future Boards to shift salmon allocation from commercial fishermen to personal-use dipnetters and anglers.
The issue is particularly contentious in Cook Inlet, the long offshoot of the North Pacific Ocean that stabs a finger smack into the Anchorage metropolitan area.
With a population now estimated at 385,000, it is home to more than half of the state’s population. Many of them are non-commercial fishermen of one sort or another, and they increasingly question whether they are getting a fair share of the Inlet salmon harvest.
As the more militant among them have observed, “those are our fish.”
In this they are in perfect agreement with commercial fishermen who also believe, “those are our fish.”
Given that the demand for the resource now always exceeds the supply, the Fish Board is left with the Solomonesque task of deciding how to divide everybody’s baby. It’s not an easy job, although the Board has never really taken on commercial fishermen.
An 2014 Alaska Department of Fish and Game report concluded commercial fishermen harvested 98.5 percent of all wild resources of Alaska. The calculation was a percentage of all commercial, and non-commercial fishing and hunting harvests. The harvest of wildlife by hunters of any sort in Alaska is largely irrelevant; it is miniscule compared to fish.
In Cook Inlet, commercial fishermen have largely owned the salmon since 1952, which was the year “pre-statehood federal authorities prohibited subsistence fishing in freshwater,” Alaska Department of Fish and Game anthropologist James Fall wrote in a 2004 technical paper on Inlet salmon history.
Though the federal ruling put an end to fishing with subsistence nets in Kenai Peninsula rivers, it didn’t actually stop people from fishing for food, the essence of subsistence fishing.
“Fishing for ‘personal use’ with a rod and reel remained open,” Fall noted. “In freshwater, snagging became the primary harvest method for those living along the river. Snagging was restricted to the head in 1969. By 1973, snagging any part of the fish was made illegal.
“This rule greatly reduced the local meat fishermen’s ability to harvest fish
for home use. More local residents headed to the beaches of Cook Inlet to fish with gill nets in the (remaining) subsistence fishery.”
Snagging was banned largely in the name of conservation. The number of sockeye salmon allowed to escape the nets of commercial fishermen to enter the Kenai in late ’60s and early ’70s was never greater than 507,000 and in ’69 dipped below 73,000.
The minimum, in-river goal is now 900,000 and climbs higher in years of abundance. Despite the snagging ban, angler catches in modern times are in the neighborhood of 400,000 sockeye in years of strong Kenai returns, according to Alaska Department of fish and Game data.
The ban on snagging clearly didn’t stop anglers from catching Kenai sockeye and king salmon for food. The regulatory change simply forced the rod-and-reel subsistence fishermen to join the so-called “sport fishermen,” who’d backed the snagging ban for conservation and “fair-chase” reasons.
Among fishing purists, snagging is considered unethical. They believe fish should be baited into taking a lure or fly, or if that’s not possible at least snagged in the mouth.
“The practice has been outlawed entirely or severely restricted in other Great Lakes states…(and) fishing ethics aside, snagging does nothing to make the salmon run along the Lake Ontario tributaries more civilized.”
In the early 1970s, the snagging ban came as civilization was starting to invade the Alaska fisheries.
“The sportfishing industry was growing and techniques for catching Chinook (king) salmon with colored lures, smell, and methods of moving the lure with the current were refined by Spence Divito,” Fall wrote. “A similar technique, known as the ‘Kenai flip’, was soon developed for catching sockeye salmon.
“Along with the new techniques for catching salmon came the sportsman image cast by Mr. Divito holding his record book Chinook salmon in 1973. By the early 1980s the sportfishing industry was growing rapidly on the Kenai Peninsula and became a major competitor with the commercial and subsistence fisheries.”
Much to the chagrin of commercial fishermen in the Inlet, the sport fishery proved much harder to control than the easily eliminated in-river subsistence fisheries.
Through the 1980s and up to the present day, arguments over salmon allocation – the Kenai fish wars – have become almost annual affairs with the Fish Board first trying to moderate between old commercial fishing interests and newer angling interests wanting more Chinook to escape commercial gillnets and later older sockeye interests wanting to claim to more than a token percentage of the sockeye catch.
Commercial fishermen led to believe they should be able to make a year’s living in a few months thanks to the state’s 1973 limited entry law have been understandably angry that what Alaska voters gave Alaska anglers and dipnetters want to take away.
It was in 1972 that voters approved an amendment to the “common property” clause of the state constitution that cleared the way to make commercial fishing a select club. The Limited Entry Act passed by the Alaska Legislature in 1973 stated among its purposes “the economic health and stability of commercial fishing.”
The economic health of the fishery is contingent on commercial fishermen catching the maximum allowable harvest of salmon to generate the maximum possible profit.
Noncommercial fishermen have never really liked that, arguing that while limited entry might have given some people the privilege to catch and sell fish – in much the way a liquor licence gives some the privilege to run a bar – the law didn’t entitle commercial fishermen to ownership of the resource.
Over the years, the Board of Fish has appeared divided on how it views this fundamental issue.
In the last big go around on Cook Inlet, then Board chairman John Jensen, a commercial fishermen from Petersburg, announced that salmon regulations were being changed to give salmon back “to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
Jensen’s comment was a reflection of the view of the majority of the Board that the Inlet’s commercial gillnet fishermen were entitled to most of the Inlet’s sockeye for historic reasons.
Recognizing, among others things, the evolving economics of the region, the Kenai sport fishing group put before the Board a proposal intended to reframe the entitlement mentality. It establishes standards for the Board to consider “before adopting regulation that allocate fish among personal use, sport, and commercial fisheries.”
It bows to historical uses, stipulating that they “may be taken into consideration when reviewing and making an allocation decision (but) this criterion alone shall not be determinate.”
The proposal then gets down to the nitty-gritty that has commercial fishermen in a panic. The proposal would establish seven criteria that govern Board allocations in “non-subsistence areas.” Those areas are clustered near the states few urban areas.
A subsistence preference prevails throughout the rural part of the state, which largely makes a non-issue of allocation between commercial and non-commercial fisheries in those areas. The non-subsistence areas were created specifically to eliminate a preference that could have cut deeply into commercial harvests.
The Kenai proposal falls short of re-establishing such a preference, but it does tilt allocation toward Joe and Jane Average Alaskan at the probable expense of commercial fishermen. The seven criteria in their order of preference:
- Salmon for “Alaska residents for personal and family consumption.” The bulk of these salmon are now caught in personal-use, Alaska-only, salmon dipnet fisheries on the Kenai, Kasilof and Copper Rivers and at Fish Creek and Kachemak Bay.
- Salmon to meet the needs of both “residents and non-residents who have participated in state fisheries in the past and can reasonably be
expected to participate in the future.”
- Salmon to protect the tourism “economy of the region and local area in
which the fishery is located.” Tourism has become a major economic engine both on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage and in the Matanuska-Susitna Borough north of Anchorage.
- Salmon to preserve “importance of each fishery to the economy of the state.
- Salmon adequate to satisfy the historical demand “of each personal use, sport, guided sport, and commercial fishery with emphasis on the previous 20 years.
- Salmon that recognize “the importance of each fishery in providing recreational opportunities for residents and non-residents.
- And, lastly, “the availability of alternative fisheries resources of similar characteristics.”
The latter standard would allow the Board to shift some catch to commercial interests. The rest of the criteria are a obvious threat to the lock commercial fishing interests have had on salmon in the state’s small, non-subsistence zones since limited entry was established.
Political efforts to shift salmon allocations in Alaska are not unprecedented. The salmon in what are now the state’s non-subsistence zones were once largely controlled by Seattle fishing interests that ran massive fish traps in the territory. The first Alaska Legislature outlawed traps to protect “our” salmon.
Who owns “our” salmon in Alaska has been the subject of debate almost ever since.