Yet again Alaska appears to be gearing up for a big fight focused on one of the state’s smallest commercial fisheries.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, one of the most politically powerful organizations in the north, over the weekend posted an “Action Alert” calling on its members to oppose the appointment of Karl Johnstone based on his actions when he served the BOF (Board of Fisheries) from 2008-2015.”
Appointed to the Board again on the first of the month by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, Johnstone this weeks starts confirmation hearings before the Alaska Legislature.
A retired Alaska Superior Court judge, Johnstone was generally well-respected by the majority of commercial, personal-use, subsistence and sport fishermen across the breadth of the state when he earlier served on the Board, but he stirred emotions in Cook Inlet.
The Inlet supports a comparatively small commercial fishery over which Alaskans fight a lot.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is projecting a 2019, statewide, commercial harvest of 213.2 million salmon. About 7.2 million of those fish, or about 3 percent of the total harvest, is expected to come from the Inlet.
And the Upper Inlet – where the real battle is focused on harvests of red (sockeye), silver (coho), and king (Chinook) salmon – is forecast to have a commercial catch of about 3.5 million or less than 2 percent of the statewide harvest.
But the Inlet is where the UFA – now led by Matt Alward, a commercial net maker from the community of Homer at the foot of the Inlet – appears to have drawn the line on Johnstone.
The stage for the National Geographic television show “Alaska Fish Wars,” the Inlet is a 220-mile-long finger of the Gulf of Alaska stabbing into the urban underbelly of the state. Lapping first at the doorstep of Anchorage, it washes north to the edge of the Matanuska-Susitna Borough.
Together the two areas comprise the Anchorage metro area home to more than half the state’s population. A large number of them are non-commercial fishermen of some sort, and they are regularly in disagreement with the fewer than 1,300 commercial fishermen holding 569 commercial drift gillnet permits and 734 set gillnet permits that allow them to catch and sell millions of Inlet salmon.
Depending almost entirely on the size of sockeye salmon returns in the Inlet, the commercial fishermen take anywhere from 75 percent to 90 percent of the returning salmon. Last year was an abysmal season for commercial fishermen, and they harvested only 1.3 million – a mere 39 percent of the 10-year average.
Non-commercial, personal-use dipnetters caught about 390,000, 74 percent of the previous year but less than 50 percent of the peak harvests of mid-decade. Anglers are estimated to have bagged less than 500,000, but accurate numbers on that catch aren’t yet available.
In his last term on the Board, Johnstone ran afoul of the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA), the most powerful of the region’s fishing groups, when the Board refused to interview commercial fisherman, commercial-fishermen favorite, and one-time UCIDA executive director Roland Maw for the job of Commissioner of the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.
Johnstone was at the time the chairman of the Board. His chairmanship ended shortly thereafter.
“The Board of Fisheries made a mockery of a public process and the law when it refused, without comment, to interview (Maw)…,” the Alaska Journal of Commerce charged after Maw was told to go fish. “(And) when Johnstone resigned, (then-Gov. Bill) Walker tapped Maw to replace him. The move is stunning, and not just for the Hollywood plot twist. Maw is a far stronger commercial fishing advocate than any of the other members of the Board who come from the industry, and replacing Johnstone with Maw reverses the balance of power on the seven-member board. The sport fish majority led by Johnstone instituted radical changes to Cook Inlet fisheries at its 2011 and 2014 meetings. After the 2011 meeting, Johnstone said that the allocative decisions made in some cases were worth ‘millions of dollars.”
Maw didn’t last long. He resigned when it was discovered he was claiming to be a resident of Montana as well of Alaska. He is still awaiting trial on charges of stealing Alaska Permanent Fund Dividends (PFDs) to which Montana residents are not entitled.
Despite Maws resignation, the Board’s reorientation toward putting more salmon in the nets of commercial fishermen in the Inlet remained. UCIDA is worried, one of the stars of the former “Fish Wars” show argues, that Johnstone could help shift the Board’s emphasis toward putting more fish in Inlet creeks and rivers.
Commercial fishermen believe that letting large numbers of salmon escape to spawn instead of getting caught in nets leads to “overescapement” which leads to fewer fish in the future. The scientific evidence for that idea, except at massive levels of escapements, is weak.
“Although overescapement was easy to detect, the biological and fishery-related effects of overescapement were more difficult to detect and assess,” a state study concluded. Yield in some cases fell, the study said, but “we did not observe long-term stock collapse of any of the 40 stocks (studied) that could be attributed to overescapement.”
Canadian scientists even more bluntly rejected the idea, stating that though they found “evidence of a decrease in spawning efficiency at high spawning numbers, there is no evidence for anything like a ‘collapse’ or ‘near-collapse’ of production following runs with very large numbers of spawners.”
Past decisions to put more fish in freshwater when Johnstone was on the Board did work largely in favor of anglers who help support large and what were steadily growing sport fisheries in both the Mat-Su and on the Kenai Peninsula.
Good freshwater fishing for salmon was in turn good for tourism businesses, and Johnstone has been something of an advocate for maximum yield management of state fisheries on both the salmon conservation and economic fronts.
In an evolving global economy, University of Alaska Fairbanks Keith Criddle observed in a 2014 study on the Economic Importance of Wild Salmon, “the marginal net economic benefits of sport harvests can be substantial and may exceed the marginal net economic benefits of commercial catches.”
Assessing value is, however, difficult because, as Criddle went on to note, “there are no region-wide estimates of these (sport fish) values.”
Fish and Game annually reports the value of commercial harvests, but makes little attempt to calculate the same for sport, personal-use and subsistence fisheries. Commercial fishermen have opposed economic studies of sportfish values since a 1987 a study concluded anglers in 1986 spent more than $127 million ($288 million in 2019 dollars) on sport fishing in the region, primarily in streams around Cook Inlet.
Sport fishing has grown significantly since 1987. Both Bass Pro and Cabelas, the country’s two biggest outdoor retail chains, opened stores in Anchorage as the outdoor sports boomed.
The Cook Inlet harvest was last year valued at $11 million, but it was a bad year. The 10-year average is $31 million. But salmon prices have largely flatlined in recent years.
“Because farmed Atlantic and Pacific salmon compete with wild Pacific salmon in global markets, the economic value of wild Pacific salmon and the economic value of farmed salmon are jointly determined,” Criddle concluded.
“Over the past three decades, consumers have been willing to purchase ever-increasing quantities of salmon, but only at lower prices. At the same time, technological innovation in salmon farming has allowed unit production costs to fall fast enough to keep pace with market clearing prices, and it has been profitable to increase total farmed production. This has been unambiguously bad news for the producers of wild salmon….
“Barring radical changes in the organization of wild salmon fisheries, the long run prospects are for declining net revenues to commercial fishermen and their communities.”
Commercial fisheries in Alaska have been saved from some of the consequences of this shift by unprecedented salmon returns to since the 1980s when the annual commercial harvest topped 100 million for the first time in decades. It continued to grow over the years that followed thanks to a warmer North Pacific Ocean.
Since the shift began, Alaska salmon have been an estimated three times more productive than in the 1946-75 period, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). During the five years “The Blob” was cooking the North Pacific, Alaska commercial harvests averaged close to 205 million fish per year.
Fisheries scientists have long been skeptical such high harvests can be maintained, expecting them to shrink again either because of a return of a colder phase in the Pacific or global-warming rendering the waters too warm for maximum salmon productivity.
But to date Alaska has, overall, enjoyed decades of the good-new days despite some regional blips as in the Inlet last year, and yet they fight over fish as much as ever.