Before an audience heavy with those who make their living from the sea, commercial fishermen and their supporters paraded before the Alaska Board of Fisheries on Saturday to testify as to where they think personal-use dipnetters belong.
Last in line was the clear answer.
Testifying for the Native Village of Eyak, Cordova’s John Whissel might have summarized the thinking best when he observed that the personal-use fisheries “are to be implemented after sport, commercial and subsistence fisheries have met their needs.”
The comments came in response to a Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KRSA) proposal before the Board that would reshuffle salmon allocation priorities in the state’s few, non-subsistence fishing areas.
The proposal seeks to make the food security of 49th state residents the number one issue the Board should consider when deciding who gets which salmon and how many.
Whissel argued the proposal was a scheme to “set up a defacto priority,” giving personal-use fishermen in five “non-subsistence” areas much the same status as subsistence fishermen in most of the rest of the state. Subsistence is a “priority use” in about 80 percent of Alaska.
In the subsistence areas, the number one priority of the Board and fishery managers with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game is to make sure subsistence demands are met.
Dipnetters once had a subsistence priority, but the Alaska Legislature in 1992 passed a law allowing the Boards of Fish and Game to establish non-subsistence areas. The state was at the time jockeying to find a way to bring state law into agreement with the Alaska National Interest Lands Conservation Act, which created more than 100 million areas of new parks and refuges in Alaska and granted “rural residents” a subsistence priority on federal lands.
The state tried to follow suit with a rural priority, but the Alaska Supreme Court ruled that granting Alaskans special hunting and fishing privileges solely on the basis of where they live violated the Alaska Constitution.
As an alternative, the Legislature gave the joint Boards the authority to create non-subsistence areas where there was heavy competition between urban and rural residents for limited resources. The hope was that the feds would buy the plan as tantamount to a rural priority and drop a threat to take over management of fish and game on federal land in the state.
They didn’t. The U.S. government has been involved in managing fish and wildlife on more than 200 million acres of land within the state for almost two decades now. The state was left in charge of about 150 million acres. The two bureaucracies engage in a constant, joint-management dance in dealing with salmon and other species that move across state-federal boundaries.
Through all this, most of the state’s fisheries have remained largely unchanged. The commercial fishing industry controlled them at statehood, after statehood and to this day.
Even when wildlife, for which there are no commercial harvests, are added to grow the size of the pie accounting for all fish and game harvested in Alaska, the state’s approximately 17,000 permit-holding commercial fishermen control more than 98 percent of the resource, according to a state analysis.
But in a state bigger than Texas yet home to less than a third of the people in Dallas alone, the competition between commercial and other fisheries becomes an issue only in the few areas where humans cluster.
Cook Inlet is the focal point. The fishery there is focused on sockeye salmon and there aren’t enough of them to support the commercial fishery let alone supply fish for sport and personal use fisheries.
The state issued 1,319 limited entry permits for the Inlet – 746 for the set gillnet fishery and 573 for the drift gillnet fishery. The 10-year average harvest in the fishery is 3.4 million sockeye.
More than twice as many permits – 1,040 set gillnet and 1,876 drift gillnet – were issued for Bristol Bay, but the bay’s annual salmon harvest is 44.4 million sockeye – 13 times more than that of the Inlet.
Were the catch in the Inlet distributed evenly, there would be 2,878 sockeye per permit. That’s less than a fifth of the 15,773 sockeye per permit in the Bay. Fishermen can make a living fishing the Bay. Fishermen are hobbyists in the Inlet, which only encourages them to put more pressure on the Board to give them more fish.
But even if the Board gave them all the fish – that annual and shrinking commercial catch plus about 400,000 sockeye from the sport catch and the personal-use catch with a 10-year average of about 370,000 per year – the average commercial harvest would increase to only 3,161 fish per permit – a fifth of the Bay harvest.
And yet the Board has for decades made commercial harvest in the Inlet a priority in order try to protect livelihoods that don’t exist. Combined, average gross earnings for the two fisheries over the past two decades are about $35,000 per year, according to data from the state’s Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission.
A National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration study of Southeast Alaska fisheries concluded fishermen net about 65 percent of gross. At that net, an average commercial fishermen would be making about as much as a minimum-wage worker in the state.
Given the economics, the KRSA has proposed the board drop commercial fishing as the priority for Inlet harvests and give other uses, starting with food for Alaskans, more consideration.
“Here’s what Proposal #171 does,” KSRA’s Kevin Delaney told the board, “it creates a process by reordering and providing weight to the existing allocation criteria in a manner that provides a decision process for examining fishery allocation issues arising in the non-subsistence areas of the state.”
Basically, instead of personal-use and sportfishing getting the leftovers of what the commercial fishery doesn’t catch, the Board would try to set some standards for how many fish the personal-use and sport fisheries need and manage the commercial fishery to let the appropriate numbers of salmon escape into Inlet rivers and streams.
“Here’s what Proposal #171 does not do,” Delaney added:
- “It does not affect allocation decisions for areas of the state outside of the five non-subsistence areas.
- “It does not create new criteria and it does not mandate an outcome.”
He admitted the plan would likely shift salmon from the commercial fishery toward fisheries in which more Alaskans participate and fisheries that maximize economic activity, but he added that “the Board would still be free to rationalize allocation decisions as they see appropriate when specific conditions warrant.”
If the Board still wants to prioritize the commercial fishery because of its historical status, he said, “this is still possible, it will just be transparently obvious that is the objective.”
Commercial fishermen stressed the historical aspect of their fisheries in their testimony. Those from Cordova were especially quick to point out the urban-rural distinctions.
Dipnetters, many of whom inhabit the urban sprawl of an Anchorage Metropolitan area now home to more than half the state’s population, are different from other Alaskans, Whissel said; they have access to “Costco.”
His comments reflected those of many testifying. They came on a day when Alaska’s rural-urban divide was vividly on display.
The handful of personal-use fisheries for which Alaska residents can obtain permits to dipnet 25 salmon plus 10 per every additional family were never intended to feed anyone, argued Chelsea Haisman, the executive director of the Cordova District Fishermen United.
The intent of personal-use fisheries, the third-generation commercial fishermen said, was for salmon to be “supplemental” to the diets of Alaskans if there were salmon surplus to commercial, subsistence and sport needs.
Personal-use harvest, she said, “should not affect any existing use.”
The only problem with that argument is that the commercial demand is unlimited, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing, Casey Gaze, Kenai drift netter argued in a written comment to the Board.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story failed to include John Whissel’s association with the Native Village of Eyak, and Chelsea Haisman said salmon should be “supplemental,” not a supplement.