On a lopsided vote Monday, the Alaska Board of Fisheries opted against the idea of boosting food security to the top of a list of criteria for allocating salmon in developed areas of the 49th state.
Rural areas are already covered by a subsistence priority which is supposed to put them first in line for salmon and other resources although it doesn’t always work that way.
Commercial fishermen trooped before the Board over the weekend to decry the “food for Alaskans” proposal submitted by the Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KSRA) as an attempt to undercut the livelihoods of those who pull their livings, or at least some portion of them, from the sea.
Commercial fishermen now harvest more than 98 percent of the fish caught in Alaska.
Leader of the pack
The 5-2 vote against the proposal came after John Jensen from Petersburg, the former Board chair, dismissed written comments in support of the KRSA plan with the observation that few proponents appeared at the Anchorage Sheraton to voice their views.
“I didn’t see a broad spectrum of people testifying,” he said. “I didn’t see them showing up here.”
He likewise argued more emphasis should be placed on Alaska’s fishing history, which is dominated by the long ago takeover of wild resources by commercial interests, than on current demographics, and he stressed his belief in the crucial role of commercial fishermen in feeding Alaskans.
A Petersburg halibut fisherman, Jensen argued that a provision in the state Constitution calling for resources to be managed “for the maximum benefit of its people” has to provide for commercial catches so Alaskans – like himself – can buy fish.
“No one wants to give me any. So I have to go down and buy them,” he said.
The comment drew a mild rebuke from current Board chairman Reed Morisky from Fairbanks.
“Without offending you,” Morisky said, “I will point out that many people are offended by that (statement).”
Debate over the KSRA proposal – which would have established some basic criteria to guide the board in allocating salmon between commercial, subsistence, sport and personal-use fisheries – ended up focused on personal-use fisheries that draw tens of thousands of Alaskans to the Kenai and Copper rivers.
Although statewide dipnet harvests in total amount to only about 0.2 percent of a statewide commercial harvest of salmon averaging about 174 million fish over the last five years, commercial fishermen in the Prince William Sound community of Cordova and on the Kenai Peninsula south of Anchorage view dipnetters as a threat.
Dipnetters are, commercial fishermen suggested to the Board over the weekend, threatening to scoop up all the salmon in the road-accessible part of the state. Most of Alaska has no roads.
Considering the food needs of average Alaskans when determining allocations “effectively ignores the fact that the number of commercial salmon fishermen in our state has been static since the Limited Entry Act was passed in 1972, while other salmon fisheries statewide have grown
unchecked in that same amount of time,” Chelsea Haisman, the executive director of Cordova District Fishermen United, told the Board.
Feeding an industry
Limited entry capped the number of commercial fishermen in Alaska after the state’s voters in the 1970s agreed to amend the Alaska Constitution to permit it.
Salmon harvests were then at all time lows, and so many commercial fishermen were competing for so few fish that nobody could make a living. The statewide salmon harvest in 1972 totaled a mere 32 million salmon worth about $60 million, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game figures.
Though last year was an off-year for modern times, the salmon catch totaled 114.5 million fish worth $685 million, according to agency. The year before – 2017 – was healthier with a harvest of 222.8 million fish, about seven times the catch of the ’70s. It was worth a reported $680 million.
The average, annual harvest for the first five years of the 1970s was 38.4 million salmon per year, according to Fish and Game data. It has steadily grown to reach that average, annual harvest for the last five years of 174 million.
Commercial fishermen have netted almost the entire increase in salmon abundance, and that is the way things should remain, said Haisman, a lifelong Alaskan and third-generation fisherman.
As originally proposed, she said, the dipnet harvest was only supposed to kick in “after spawning escapement needs, and present levels of subsistence, commercial, and sport uses (were met), and beyond that it should not affect an existing use.”
Haisman is a vocal supporter of the commercial fishery that operates off the mouth of the Copper. There are both subsistence and personal-use fisheries upstream near a tiny community named Chitina.
The personal-use fishery, the biggest of the in-river fisheries, was once a subsistence fishery with a harvest priority, but Cordova fishermen convinced a Fish Board long dominated by commercial fishing interests to downgrade the fishery to personal-use to eliminate the priority.
Commercial fishing dominance of the Board has itself begun to become an issue.
The process, said Board member Israel Peyton from the Matanuska-Susitna Borought, has left average Alaskans feeling “disenfranchised.” Some have started talking about a Constitutional amendment to repeal limited entry, arguing that it has turned into an Alaska form of Prohibition.
“I interact with John Q. Public quite often,” Peyton said. “They’ve given up. This doesn’t work for them. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard, ‘let’s just close all fishing for five years.'”
Average Alaskans don’t show up to testify to the Board, he added, because they believe it is a waste of their energy to arrange time of from their jobs to try to influence a process where their input is regularly ignored.
The last meeting of the Board to discuss Cook Inlet harvest regulations did draw a significant turnout of dipnetters, anglers and people in the Mat-Su tourism industry. All complained in-river fisheries at the head of the Inlet were suffering because too few salmon were getting through commercial nets in the Inlet.
The result was that the Board decided to take fish away from those complaining.
Peyton argued such actions have discouraged participation by people who have jobs to which they need to pay attention.
“Those people were working,” he said. “They were driving taxis. They were building houses. They were ringing you up at Walmart. They were making a living.
“They don’t have time, energy and money to come to these meetings…(and) they’ve given up; that’s why they’re not here. They don’t have associations for them, and they don’t have umbrella associations for the associations.”
The Board didn’t seem too interested.
Al Cain, a former Alaska Wildlife Trooper and now a Fish and Game contractor serving on the Board, said he couldn’t understand what the words “adaptive management” meant in the KRSA proposal, and he thought establishing allocation criteria would decrease the Board’s flexibility.
Fritz Johnson, a commercial fisherman from Bristol Bay, said he couldn’t support the idea “given the broad opposition from large blocks of stakeholders.” “Stakeholder” is a term now used to refer to commercial fishermen who some believe were given a stake in the salmon with the passage of limited entry, although the fish technically remain a public resource.
“I really wanted to keep an open mind,” said Board member Robert Ruffner from the Kenai, before adding that he saw nothing to gain from the proposal. It offered only guidelines, and the Alaska Department of Law advised the board it was not bound by guidelines.
“That’s what I always thought it was,” Jensen said; Board members get to decide allocation based purely on their own, personal feelings.
After the meeting, Rod Arno, the director of the Alaska Outdoor Council, the state’s largest outdoor group, said the comments of Jensen and the attorney for the state make it clear the only food-security solution is to get some new members on the Board whose feelings differ from those of Jensen.
Ruffner’s term expires in June, and Board member Orville Huntington from Huslia, who has a degree in wildlife management, has expressed an interest in moving to the Board of Game, which has two seats opening in June.
Were Gov. Mike Dunleavy to appoint Huntington to the Game Board, there would be two seats open on the Fish Board come summer.