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The school in Alaska’s Jackson Hole/Bristol Bay Borough

Global warming might portend all sorts of future problems from Alaska, but so far it’s coming up nothing but roses for the Bristol Bay region of the state.

The U.S. Bureau of Economic Analysis has ranked the Bay – as everyone in Alaska knows it – as the fourth richest county in the country in 2018.

It’s right up there with the Big Apple and the political entites surrounding the Jackson Hole and Aspen retreats of the uber-wealthy.

Per capita income in the Bay last year hit $143,575 – up 14 percent from the $125,895 of 2017, according to the federal agency. Nowhere else in Alaska came close.

Average income on the North Slope – home to the oil industry that is the state’s major economic engine and has long paid the bills for most of state government – was a comparatively paltry $83,489, a $149 increase over 2017 but still almost $6,000 below what was being paid in 2016.

Anchorage, the state’s largest city, ranked 10th in per capita income for Alaska boroughs at 46 percent of the average for the Bay. But at $66,510 per capita – a 5.3 increase over 2017 – it was doing better than the surrounding boroughs in 2018 as the state tried to claw its way out of a long-running recession.

The Matanuska-Susitna Borough and the Kenai Peninsula Borough saw per capita incomes less than a third to slightly more than a third of that of the Bay.

Silver-scaled gold

Thank the sockeye salmon which came back in record numbers in 2018, according to the Alaska Department of Fish and Game.  Commercial fishermen caught 62.3 million of them, an improvement on the catch of 37.7 million the year before.

State fishery biologists called 2017 “another great sockeye salmon season with 37.7 million sockeye salmon” and were surprised to see it dwarfed by the 2018 return. Another big season followed this year with a catch of 43 million, the second largest in history.

On top of that, 13.5 million escaped the nets of fishermen to seed the dozens of rivers that drain to the bay,

The total run of “56.5 million fish is the fourth largest and was 45 percent above the 39 million average run for the latest 20-year time period,” the state reported. “It was the fifth consecutive year that inshore sockeye salmon runs exceeded 50 million fish.”

Despite the New York Times proclaiming Alaska fisheries in trouble due to warming, they are – so far – major beneficiaries of warming. The Times in 2018 had the right observation when Julia O’Malley reported this:

“Like many people around the world in an era of climate change and pollution, Alaskans have seen startling disruptions in the fisheries that sustain them — in this case, the salmon that return to rivers in warmer months to spawn after feeding in the open sea.”

The problem was that O’Malley and the Times had the context exactly backward. The startling change statewide isn’t with salmon in decline; it is with salmon in abundance.

Four times this decade, the statewide harvest has topped 200 million. Before this decade, that happened only four times in the 124 years of commercial fishing, meaning that on average a 200-million-salmon year would be expected to come about once every third decade.

The Bay has been one of the biggest beneficiaries of nature’s new-found largesse, and scientists admit that warming appears to be the big difference-maker.

Warmer Alaska ocean and freshwaters, the latter in part a product of warmer nearby seas, are giving the region’s economically valuable sockeye salmon a jump start on life, University of  Washington (UW) researchers concluded in a paper published in “Nature, Ecology & Evolution” in May,  although upon going to sea the fish do find they must compete for survival on increasingly competitive pastures.

That’s because other species of salmon and fish in general are also flourishing.

Scientists generally agree warming has made the northern ocean more productive. The metabolic theory,  which links total resource biomass to temperature and decrees production should go up as temperature increases, is holding. But no one can know for how long.

Winners and losers

On paper, these numbers would make these look to be great times for the Bay, and they are for a few months each summer.

Then the people who make the big bucks pack up and go home, and what they leave behind are not the luxury mansions needing year-round care as in Teton County, Wyoming.

The richest county in the nation, it is described by Bloomberg as “a billionaire playground…home to the wealthy enclave of Jackson Hole — where Bill Gates purchased ‘Buffalo Bill’ Cody’s former ranch.”

Teton, Bloomberg added, “is the only county to exceed $250,000 in data going back to 1969.” But Pitkin, Colo. – home to the wealthy enclave of Aspen where disgraced but still rich former Tour de France cyclist Lance Armstrong has a home – is very well off, too.

On the per capita ranking it comes in just behind New York in number two and just in front of Bristol Bay at number four. Bloomberg’s reporting makes Pitkin sound a little like the Bay:

“In Pitkin County, high incomes aren’t shared equally among its nearly 18,000 residents, contributing to a shortage of affordable housing. About two-thirds of the workers in Aspen and nearby Snowmass commute into the area, often from as far as 75 minutes away, said Karen Peirson, chair of the Aspen Board of Realtors.

“And it’s no wonder, as Aspen’s year-to-date median price for a single-family home hit $6 million, data from the Realtors group show. The median price of a condo or townhome is about $1.8 million.

“There seems to be no let-up in demand this year, Peirson said. The community is trying to tackle home-affordability with a program capping rents and price-appreciation of some condos and houses.”

The difference in the Bay is that there are no $6 million homes to pay property taxes that help support what the Aspen Times reports is a $148 million budget for the county next year.

The Bristol Bay Borough has a budget of about $16 million. Twenty-six percent of it – $3.8 million – last year came from its share of a state fish tax, the president of the Borough told the Legislature earlier this year.

The U.S. Census now estimates the borough’s year-round population is 877 people. The population has been falling steadily all decade. The Census, which records income for 12-month residents, reports it is $42,002. 

That’s about 30 percent of the per capita income reported by the Bureau of Economic Analysis. The people who live in the Bay aren’t doing as well as the people who visit the Bay to fish.

Much of this traces back to Alaska’s voter-approved, limited-entry law which in the early 1970s capped the number of salmon fishermen allowed in the state. Alaska salmon harvests were then about a tenth of what they are now, and the competition between fishermen was so intense very few of them could catch enough to make a living.

The intent of the law was to make it viable for individual fishermen to succeed as businessmen. The belief was that they would then become the economic base for the rural communities near the rivers where the fish spawn and die.

The law of unintended consequences had other ideas. Some local fishermen in need of cash sold their permits, which can be freely traded in the market, to fishermen Outside. Others living in rural Alaska made enough money that they could afford to move away for the comforts of urban life with only summers – when the days are long and the weather friendly – reserved for the rural corners of the state.

Today, most of the Bay fishermen benefitting from the bounty of salmon live somewhere other than the Bay. At this very moment, the Bay is largely deserted.

There are no rich homeowners flying in for a few days of skiing. There are no bars, restaurants and shops humming with holiday traffic. The BEA numbers might make the Bay Borough look hugely successful.

But the reality is somewhat different.

















13 replies »

  1. The Bay, even during the summer, isn’t what would be described as a prosperous area. Dillingham is the center of activity and it is little more than an outpost for the extraction industry. When the processors moved offshore to floating processors the decline in the local fishing villages began in earnest.

  2. In these times of our warming planet it is easier to don a pair of rose colored glasses and focus on the “winners” while forgetting the losers (like the sport fishing industry in the mat su borough).
    There are numerous examples of fisheries accross the state which are collapsing in the face of climate change but you will not find them on channel Medred.
    “For years, Alaska fishermen like Kasprzak have worried that climate change would threaten their livelihoods.
    Now it has.
    The cod population in the Gulf of Alaska is at its lowest level on record, according to an expert at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Adminstration.
    The culprit is a warm-water mass called “the blob”…”

    • It’s not climate change that is killing the fisheries, Steve. Rather it is a combination of overfishing by commfish and yearly dumping of over a billion hatchery pinks into PWS. Warmer waters tend to favor finfish. Colder waters tend to favor shellfish (crab for example). Cheers –

      • Agimarc,
        I agree that both the billion hatchery fish and over fishing have played a huge role in the demise of many fisheries (along with oil and gas development in the cook Inlet)…but I cannot help but think we are seeing a serious migration north to colder waters (and we all know how salmon tend to stray) which would explain the record high returns in BB while many other areas saw record lows.

      • Steve,

        I hate to ruin your ignorant rant, but Bristol Bay is at a lower latitude than the Kenai Peninsula and Cook Inlet. Bristol Bay is about the same latitude as Kodiak and much of Southeast Alaska.

        How exactly has oil and gas development in Cook Inlet led to the demise of ANY fisheries?

        Seriously man, you need to inform yourself before you type…it’s sad to see someone who could contribute to discussions do nothing but throw bags of steaming nonsense all the time.

      • Steve O…
        You really mean that you love arguing against every comment that I make and boy do I feel honored…
        Latitude is not the only factor affecting ocean temps…and I would need to see the data to draw a sound conclusion…but I do have suspicion.
        As for oil and gas industry in the Cook Inlet, have you already forgotten that the Dunleavy administration just agreed to allow Hilcorp and friends to dump an additional billion gallons of discharges every year?
        Do you think young salmon and Beluga whales love swimming in oil and fracking “discharges”?
        Who would do that to a food source?
        Honestly, your blind allegiance “to the man” is respectful but your disregard for science is unacceptable to modern man.
        “Discharges of water-based and low-toxicity oil-based drilling muds and produced water can extend over 2 km, while the ecological impacts at the population and community levels on the seafloor are most commonly on the order of 200–300 m from their source.
        These impacts may persist in the deep sea for many years and likely longer for its more fragile ecosystems…”

      • “I’ve never seen more egregious pollution rollbacks anywhere in Alaska, said Bob Shavelson, Inletkeeper’s Advocacy Director. Cook Inlet is already the only coastal water body in the nation where oil and gas companies enjoy a toxic dumping loophole.
        Now it’s clear ADEC simply asked industry what it wanted to dump, then built a shoddy permit around it.”

        “The proposed permit relies on massive mixing zones in Cook Inlet to dilute billions of gallons of industry waste; the area within these mixing zones fails to meet state water quality standards designed to protect fisheries and other uses. 
        Industry waste streams contain toxic hydrocarbons and heavy metals, including mercury, lead, cadmium and arsenic.”

      • Steve,

        I’m not arguing with you, just explaining how you are wrong. It’s no big deal to be wrong, it’s how you respond when you are wrong that is important. I tend to learn things when I am wrong, you on the other hand not so much.

        You said, in part “we are seeing a serious migration north to colder waters (and we all know how salmon tend to stray) which would explain the record high returns in BB while many other areas saw record lows.” Latitude is a word used when describing North and South, Cook Inlet is North of Bristol Bay and Kodiak and Southeast Alaska are at about the same latitude as the Bay. Where are these record number of red salmon straying from, you seem to think they are coming from areas with record lows…where are these areas and how many reds do you think are straying to Bristol Bay? Do you have any science to back up your statements (more on science later).

        You cannot point to a single fisheries demise related to oil and gas development in Cook Inlet because there isn’t one. Young salmon and belugas are not swimming in oil.

        What allegiance to what “man” are you talking about, is this another one of your conspiracy theories? I loved your joke about “disregard for science is unacceptable to modern man”, you can’t be bothered to look at a map and you think young salmon and belugas are swimming in oil. Please show me where you think I disregard science, I’ve shown your repeated false claims and complete disregard for science numerous times. I get it man, you cannot provide any proof for your claims so you lash out.

        I really wish you would inform yourself and become educated, until that happens I will gladly point out where you are wrong in the hopes that you will learn something. Just remember that I’m not arguing with you and I’m not arguing against your comments, simply pointing out where you are wrong.

    • Steve –

      Your link to the Frontiers article lists sediment, drill shavings, muds and various drilling fluids as discharge concerns. You are aware of the natural sediment discharge into Cook Inlet every minute of every day, aren’t you? It is ground up mountains, and it is what turns the Kenai its lovely blue grey color. I would submit that sealife in Cook Inlet is well adapted to small caliber particulate matter in the water.

      The other thing is that in the original days, drill sites were identified from oil and natural gas seeps, the actual stuff leaking into the environment. We know for a fact that life in the Gulf of Mexico is well adapted to the hundreds (thousands?) of seeps there. I don’t know how many seeps were known in Cook Inlet before drilling began. Will look into it for you.

      Final comment: Be very careful about quoting Bob Shavelson, as he has managed to double down on work on the Dark Side of the Force, being both a Cook Inlet commfish kind of guy and his non-profit, the Cook Inlet Keeper profits nicely when environmental scares can be promulgated, something he is very good at doing. Cheers –

      • It simply makes no sense to allow the oil and gas industry to dump a BILLION more gallons of waste water with carcinogens into the Cook Inlet every year.
        Bob’s fishing history aside…I am glad someone has the balls to call out this corrupt administration.
        Between the endangered Beluga whales and the declining (if not endangered) King salmon species…it is flat out unacceptable to cater to Hilcorp while we loose an entire sport fishing industry here in the Susitna Valley and they laugh at us all the way to their Houston, Texas bank.
        Someone needs to file a lawsuit and take this issue to the courts.

      • Add your lawsuit to the pile, but you already knew this information

        As far as calling this a “corrupt administration” simply because you disagree with some of the things they do and without even a shred of proof, is typical of your emotionally fact challenged posts. Bring the suit Steve, bring any facts that you think you may have and go have your day in court.

  3. Hmmm, typical.
    “Climate change alarmists are pushing for a change in vocabulary to scare people into taking global warming more seriously, starting with terms like “global meltdown” and “climate collapse.”

    Writing for AdAge this week, Aaron Hall argues that in order to get people to “take action” against climate change, “rebranding” is crucial, since people have gotten too used to the idea that climate is changing and need to be shocked into the notion that the world as we know it is ending.”

    The terms “Global Meltdown” or “Global Melting,” for instance, deliver a more negative image than mere “Global Warming,” he contends. “The names signal that ice caps are melting, but also create a more visceral image in the mind — that real feeling of ‘melting’ when it’s too hot outside. A meltdown is a disastrous event that draws from the ultimate terror of a nuclear meltdown, an apt metaphor for global destruction.”

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