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.
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.
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 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.