Seldom if ever has a more than two-year-old op-ed in an Alaska newspaper attracted the kind of attention the Alaska House Resources Committee on Monday night devoted to the jottings of retired Anchorage Superior Court Judge Karl Johnstone.
It had nothing to with the law. Neither did it have anything to do with the observation by the former state Board of Fisheries (BOF) chairman that a six-fold increase in non-resident anglers between 1976 and 2017 warranted reconsideration of how salmon are managed in Alaska.
Today’s fishing regulations are generally weighted to benefit commercial fishermen although tourism, a considerable part of it tied to sport fishing, has become the state’s largest growth industry.
The United Fishermen of Alaska, a commercial fishing group that is one of the states’ biggest political powers, is trying to block the efforts of Gov. Mike Dunleavy to reappoint Johnstone to the BOF because of fears he might shift that status quo.
Thus the hearing came to focus on a couple of paragraphs deep in an old newspaper column.
“Alaska salmon are today small players in a global market where salmon farms, like it or not, dictate price,” Johnstone wrote there. “The Norwegians produced a record 1.3 million tons of farmed salmon in 2015. Canadians, 1.2 million tons.
“The Chileans, with help from Mitsubishi, are continuing to grow their production and, so too are the Scots. And these farms aren’t producing pink salmon for cans. They’re producing Atlantic salmon for fillets that compete directly with upper Cook Inlet salmon in the market place.”
Committee chairwoman Rep. Louise Stutes, R-Kodiak, made a point of reading the words into the record before declaring that “Mr. Johnstone has proven himself to be extremely biased against commercial fisheries…..Aquaculture is not the way of the future.”
She appeared to have forgotten that Alaska is, by far, the U.S. leader in salmon aquaculture and is the reason the country is the biggest player in salmon aquaculture in the Pacific Ocean. The North Pacific Anadromous Fish Commission last year reported the U.S. had topped Japan as number one in pen-free salmon farming, or what Alaskans prefer to call salmon ranching.
Of the 1.9 billion immature salmon the U.S. turned loose in the Pacific in 2017, 1.6 billion or just over 84 percent came from Alaska hatcheries, the Commission reported.
Stutes’ Monday view on aquaculture seemed strangely out of sync with her own observation following a hatchery hearing only a month ago when she seemed all in on aquaculture as the way of the future.
Aquaculture versus aquaculture
Stutes’ real issue seemed to be not with aquaculture per se, but with Johnstone’s observation that farmed fish now dominate the global salmon market.
Many of the dozens of commercial fishermen testifying before the committee in a hearing that ran late into the night also thought Johnstone’s observations made him some sort of advocate for net-pen fish farming, a practice long banned in Alaska.
They had other complaints, too: The retired judge spent too much time out of the state traveling, although he did qualify for a Permanent Fund Dividend (PFD); he was 25 years ago reprimanded by the state Supreme Court over a court hiring decision; he is too good of an advocate for noncommercial fishing interests; he isn’t friendly enough to commercial fishermen; he followed state advice and accepted per diem to stay at a downtown Anchorage hotel during BOF meetings in the city rather than commuting back and forth to his home on the edge of the city; and more.
When commercial fishermen weren’t vilifying Johnstone for all of those things and his role as an alleged stalking horse for the farmed-fish business, sport fishermen and personal-use dipnetters were lining up to back him as a voice of reason and fairness in his previous stint on the BOF.
Support and opposition came from around the state, but the issue was clearly focused on Cook Inlet where, under Johnstone’s leadership, the BOF tried to transition some salmon harvest from the established commercial fishery to sport and personal-use fisheries to meet growing public demands and aid the tourist industry.
Former Gov. Bill Walker, who was elected with heavy support from commercial fishermen, asked for Johnstone’s resignation and appointed a new Board that shifted in the opposite direction. Walker named commercial fishermen Roland Maw, the former director of the Inlet’s most powerful commercial fish lobby, to fill Johnstone’s seat, but that didn’t work out so well.
Maw turned out to be still clinging to residency in his old home state of Montana while also claiming to be an Alaskan. Montana found out and busted him. Maw is still awaiting trial in Alaska on charges of PFD theft; Montanans are not allowed PFDs.
More than 100 people signed up to testify at the hearing, and they appeared near equally split between Johnstone supporters and critics, with Stutes actively aligning herself with the latter.
“You asserted farmed fish were the way of the future,” she told Johnstone.
“Farmed fish are taking over,” Johnstone responded. “I want people to start thinking about what can be done.”
“Are you advocating for farmed fish in the state of Alaska?” Stutes asked.
“I’m not in favor of farmed fish in Alaska,” Johnstone said, but he added that he would like to see state officials consider how to improve efficiencies in the commercial fisheries going forward to help the state’s commercial fishermen compete in an increasingly competitive global market.
The state’s top economists have made similar observations. Alaska needs to find ways to encourage innovation in the commercial fishing industry in order to compete with net-pen fish farmers, Gunnar Knapp, the retired director of the University of Alaska Anchorage’s Institute on Social and Economic Research (ISER), told the International Institute of Fisheries Economics and Trade in Seattle last summer.
“We can’t predict – or maybe even imagine – the changes technological innovation may bring,” he argued. “Self-driving smart fishing gear? Integrated algae-based open ocean aquaculture? Fully automated seafood processing & distribution?”
University of Alaska Fairbanks economist Keith Criddle has made similar observations. In a 2014 report on the “Economic Importance of Wild Salmon,” he noted that “over the past three decades, consumers have been willing to purchase ever-increasing quantities of salmon, but only at lower prices.
“(But) 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 for two reasons.”
Reason number one is that salmon farmers, unlike commercial fishermen, are not restrained by the ocean’s ability to produce fish. Reason number two is that farmed salmon can be raised in controlled environments where producers can monitor for contaminants and eliminate parasites.
Eliminating parasites is what allowed the Norwegians to create a huge market for salmon sushi in Japan where uncooked salmon were long shunned because of the risk of tapeworms.
Johnstone said he didn’t believe an understanding of world salmon markets made him biased against commercial fishermen.
“I disagree with your premise there madam chairman,” he said.
Maybe Rep. Geran Tarr, D-Anch., suggested to Johnstone, commercial fishermen are so strongly opposed to his reappointment because he wasn’t enough of an advocate for commercial fish during his last stint on the BOF.
“I think I have supported you in the past,” she said, while expressing mixed feelings about her vote on confirmation this time.
The BOF needs to look at more than just allocating salmon between commercial and non-commercial fishermen, Tarr said; there needs to be a focus on “all of those things (that) also have an influence with what is going on in the commercial industry…ocean acidification, global warming….”
Possibly, she suggested, Johnson missed “a lot of reasons for the stress on the commercial fisheries.”
The commercial industry in Alaska has been under stress in the state for years now, but the stress comes from market conditions not ocean acidification or global warming. The latter has actually provided a boost for the Alaska salmon, fisheries scientists say.
The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is forecasting a harvest of more than 213 million salmon this year. The five-year average harvest now stands at more than 193 million per year. The average for this decade is 181 million a year, an increase of more than 8 percent from the 2000s when the average annual return stood at 167.4 million, which was in increase from the 157.5 million in the 1990s, and the 122.4 million in the 1980s.
The increase in Alaska’s harvest since the 1980s is almost 49 percent, but the salmon in the commercial market are now worth only about half of what they were worth at their peak then.
From a purely conservation standpoint, Johnstone said, the various BOFs that have overseen harvests in Alaska’s fisheries for the past 40 years have done a pretty good job, but the Board has struggled with allocation issues, especially in the Inlet at the doorstep of the Anchorage metropolitan area home to more than half the state’s population.
Noncommercial fishermen around the Inlet want a fair share of the Inlet’s salmon, he said. Commercial fishermen in the Inlet, having long controlled the harvest, don’t want to give up any fish. And as a result, there is bound to be conflict.
“There’s a lot of competition for the resources,” Johnstone said. “That’s really hard on the commercial fishery there….It’s been the commercial fishermen that have had to give up the fish.
“(But) the salmon is a common property resource,” he added, and the Alaska Constitution gives every Alaskan some right to a part of the harvest.
“I’m all for managing the fishery in the best interest of all Alaskans,” Johnstone said, but how to do that is not easy and not without controversy.
“There’s sort of no denying that,” Tarr said…”(but) I just don’t want a situation where it just becomes one group over another. There has to be some sort of fairness and equity.”
She offered no details on how to define those terms or any suggestions as to how “fairness and equity” might be achieved in a situation where the resource is fully allocated. For any group to get a bigger slice of the pie, the size of somebody else’s piece has to shrink.
And the size of the slice available to individual, non-commercial fishermen – anglers, dipnetters and subsistence fishermen – shrinks each time another participant enters those open-access fisheries. Commercial fishermen enjoy the luxury of the state’s voter-approved, limited entry law which froze the number of commercial permits in 1973.
Noncommercial fishermen have no such protection. They must compete with an ever-growing mob of new entries into the fishery.
Some have suggested the BOF needs some economic or other criteria to help guide allocation decisions affecting all Alaskans, including those who don’t fish. But the BOF has to date rejected that idea.
Former BOF chairman John Jensen, a commercial halibut fisherman from Petersburg, argued that the history of commercial fishing in the state trumps the shifting demographics that have sparked a steady rise in the number of anglers and dipnetters. The state Constitutional provision calling for resources to be managed “for the maximum benefit of its people” should, he added, protect commercial catches so Alaskans maintain an adequate opportunity to buy salmon.
“No one wants to give me any,” he said. “So I have to go down and buy them.”
He was mildly rebuked by sitting Board chairman Reed Morisky from Fairbanks for making that comment.
““Without offending you,” Morisky said, “I will point out that many people are offended by that (statement).”
Such behavior by BOF chairmen came up at the Johnstone hearing. Johnstone was accused by Stutes and some witnesses of bullying other Board members and sometimes refusing to do as told by state fisheries biologists.
Stutes said people she refused to name reached out to her office to say they had been threatened by Johnstone. He allegedly told someone he was going to put them out of business, but the individual didn’t want testify because they were fearful of Johnstone’s vindictiveness, she said. Stutes did not specify the business.
“It’s inaccurate, and it’s untrue,” Johnstone said of the anonymous charge.
But Andy Hall – the editor of Alaska Coast magazine and the president of the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association, an organization that lobbies for the interests of commercial, set gillnet fishermen in the Inlet – later testified that “I feared retaliation from Mr. Johnstone.”
He did not provide any details.
Asked today to clarify what he meant, Hall said, “I haven’t thought about it. I’ll call you if I come up with something.”
The connection to Hall’s cell phone was then lost. A call back went to voice mail on the phone. A message left asking whether the phone had dropped the signal or if Hall had hung up was not returned. Hall did not respond to an email asking the same question.
Johnstone said he is not taking the attacks on his character personally. He said he understands this is the way politics now works.