Conservative blogger and self-proclaimed “data dink” Alex Gimarc has crunched the numbers on who goes fishing in Alaska and the most interesting finding is, as the writer Arthur Conan Doyle once observed, the dog that doesn’t bark.
Gimarc admits his interest in the numbers is largely political. As he points out, a whole bunch of Anchorage area legislators do a lousy job of representing their constituents on state fishery issues.
Many of them happen to be liberal Democrats, although Gimarc is not shy about calling out fellow conservatives Sen. Cathy Geissel, R-Anchorage, and Rep. Chuck Kopp of R-Anchorage. In a column at Alaska Politics & Elections, he describes Kopp as “a commercial fisherman who is using his position as a legislator to prop up his commercial fishing business.”
At least Kopp has a legitimate reason for siding with commercial interests in the never-ending fish wars between what Gimarc found to be the 1.5 percent of Alaskans who hold commercial permits and the 20 percent who purchase sport fishing licenses.
Why other Anchorage lawmakers representing districts heavy on anglers and dipnetters tacitly, sometimes actively side with the 1.5 percent is unclear.
Gimarc notes that in the district of Rep. Ivy Sponholz – who last year dropped a wholly unsubstantiated #metoo accusation on retired Judge Karl Johnstone to kill his reappointment to the state Board of Fisheries – the Alaskans holding sport-fishing licenses outnumber those holding commercial licenses by 90 to 1 and dipnetters outnumber commercial fishermen 22 to 1.
The only valid and substantiated charge raised against Johnston during his confirmation hearings was that he favored transitioning state fisheries management away from commercial fisheries and toward sport and dipnet fisheries in areas where the latter provided a greater economic benefit to the state.
This website invested a lot of time chasing the Sponholz #metoo accusation on which she refused to comment. Many of the women who had worked in or around Johnston during his previous service on the Board were contacted. All but one said they’d never had an issue with Johnstone nor ever seen any indication of any objectionable behavior related to sex or gender.
The exception was a former state employee with some involvement in Democrat politics who simply refused to talk. She said she just didn’t want to be involved. Former co-worker were of the opinion the response had nothing to do with sexual/gender issues but with politics.
Commercial fishermen had vowed to block Johnstone’s reappointment to the Board, and a whole bunch of Democrats piled on to help them do that. Some observers in Juneau credited the power of the commercial fishing lobby. Others said the Democrats just wanted to stick a fork in the eye of newly elected Republican Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
Alaskans may never know what was going on. Maybe some Democrat lawmakers just have it out for anglers and dipnetters, and if so there is nothing wrong with that because the bulk of their constituents fit in neither of these groups.
That silent dog
And therein is the most interesting aspect to emerge from computer programmer Gimarc’s number crunching using state voter rolls and databases for commercial permit holders, sportfish license holders and dipnet permit holders.
What he found is that 80 percent of Alaskans don’t fish. These people comprise Alaska’s great, silent majority on the issue, which is not to say the issue doesn’t affect them because it does.
Fish are an integral part of the economy and have been for a long time. During territorial days, taxes on fish covered 80 percent of the cost of the territorial government. Fish were the equivalent of oil in Alaska today, and Alaskans watched most of the wealth derived from the resource flow south to Seattle. They fretted they were getting ripped off.
“Thus an increasingly pitched political battle raged for 50 years between residents and non-residents, between labor and capital, and between local fishermen and distant federal bureaucrats,” Steve Colt of the University of Anchorage’s Institute of Social and Economic Research wrote in a history.
Fish traps, largely owned by nonresident corporations, became the focal point for the battle.
“Opposition to the hated fish trap provided the political fuel for the statehood movement, and the new State of Alaska banned the trap as part of its constitution,” Colt writes. The ban was wishfully expected to end a decline in salmon production then underway. It didn’t.
Salmon runs continued to decline. Fishermen who’d thought their problems over with the end of traps found themselves unable to catch enough fish to make a living. An early effort to limit competition in the fishery was ruled constitutionally illegal in the state.
Finally, in 1972, commercial fishermen convinced voters to approve a constitutional amendment legalizing what the state calls “limited entry.” The limited entry law capped the number of commercial fishermen allowed to work in the state, handed free and transferable permits to most of the established fishermen, and they took over the economic position once occupied by the trap owners.
Since then, the permit holders – some of whom arrived late to the party after paying an original permit holder hundreds of thousands of dollars to transfer a permit – have largely dictated fisheries policy to the state in much the way the fish-trap owners dictated fishery policy to the federal officials with oversight in territorial days.
Now down to 1.5 percent of Alaskans, they continue to largely dictate state fishery policy.
Overlooked are the majority of Alaskans who benefit from one thing and one thing only when it comes to fisheries: a robust state economy.
The Board of Fish has largely turned its back on its responsibility to manage for them as outlined in the state Constitution which very specifically says “the legislature (which in this case delegated fisheries responsibility to the Board) shall provide for the utilization, development, and conservation of all natural resources belonging to the State, including land and waters, for the maximum benefit of its people.”
Not for the maximum benefit of the 1.5 percent. Not for the maximum benefit of the 3 percent that Gimarc found holding dipnet permits. Not for the maximum benefit of the 20 percent with sportfish licenses.
But for the “maximum benefit of its people,” meaning all of its people.
Despite a 2007 Alaska Department of Fish and Game study showing sport fisheries supported a $1.4 billion statewide industry worth about$733 million to the Cook Inlet area economy alone, a study followed by a 2017 Matanuska Susitna Borough examination putting the Inlet value at $716 million despite declining sport harvests, few efforts have ever made to shift catch from the commercial to sport fishery to take advantage of the higher-value per fish and the potential for economic growth.
By way of comparison, the commercial catch in Cook Inlet in 2019 was worth approximately $21.6 million – $18 million in upper Cook Inlet and $3.6 million in lower Cook Inlet. Given a total catch of about 4.5 million fish, that reflects an average, per fish value of about $4.80 per salmon.
Broad comparisons of the economic value of commercial and sport fisheries are difficult to make. Small comparisons are much easier. So consider this:
An Anchorage area driver at the wheel of the average American motor vehicle, which now gets about 25 miles to the gallon, spent somewhere around $25.20 on gas alone to make the 210-mile roundtrip drive from the city to the Russian River, one of the Kenai’s more popular fishing spots, for the opportunity to catch a limit of three salmon last year.
If she was lucky or skillful and caught her limit, the salmon would have started with a per fish cost to her of $8.40 for the gasoline alone. That $8.40 is the bare minimum of cash she injected into the economy to obtain that fish. If she bought fishing supplies in the city before she left, food in Cooper Landing while on the Kenai, and caught less than her limit – a regular occurrence – the per fish expenditure rapidly escalates.
If she flew to Anchorage from California, rented a car, booked a room somewhere, bought most of the gear with which to fish, had the few salmon she caught boxed and packed in ice to be flown back to California, well, suffice to say she would likely have spent enough money to buy a dozen or more Alaska salmon at her local supermarket with most of the value flowing somewhere other than the 49th state.
“There seems to be a misconception within our state that commercial fishing is business and sportfishing is just for fun,” a group of Mat-Su and Kenai business owners were moved to write in a recent op-ed in the Anchorage newspaper. “(But) the dollars, euros and yen spent by those smiling grandparents, laughing kids and excited visitors supports a mind-boggling variety of businesses, from outfitters in their hometowns to gas stations and restaurants along the way to all the many businesses near the rivers and campsites.”
Unfortunately, when Mat-Su businessmen trooped before the Fish Board to make this very argument in 2017, the Board’s response was to reduce the number of salmon getting into Mat-Su and other Cook Inlet streams in order to increase the commercial harvest in the Inlet.
The fish had been “given up,” as Jensen put it, when Johnstone chaired the Board. The Board under Johnstone’s leadership shifted allocation slightly toward anglers and dipnetters. It was a largely historic first, and it cost Johnstone his seat.
Independent Gov. Bill Walker, a one-time Republican who credited Democrat commercial fishermen from the Kenai Peninsula with helping him unseat incumbent Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, ousted Johnstone and replaced him with Roland Maw, the director of the Kenai-based United Cook Inlet Drifter’s Association (UCIDA) – the most powerful commercial fishing lobby in the region.
Maw claimed to have resigned that position, but whether he had or hadn’t was hard to tell. He also claimed to have discovered an endangered species (he didn’t) and to be an Alaskan while also claiming to a Montanan, a claim that got him in trouble in both states.
Montana convicted him of illegally claiming residency in order to obtain resident hunting licenses. The state of Alaska is still pursuing him on charges of illegally claiming to be an Alaskan in order to collect thousands of dollars in Permanent Fund Dividends only available to state residents.
Maw resigned from the Board before news of his legal problems leaked out and then tried to pretend they didn’t exist, a charade that didn’t last long. And yet, despite all of this, Maw was soon back into the thick of things at UCIDA, including meeting privately with Walker and other UCIDA members to discuss how to increase commercial salmon harvests in the Inlet.
Jensen clearly and quickly got the message as to how the ducks lined up behind the new governor. A vote to shift some allocation away from commercial fishing interests under Johnstone’s leadership, he became a vote to shift allocation back to commercial fishing interests when he replaced Johnstone as chair.
It met earlier this week in Kodiak where it voted to restrict cape fisheries off Kodiak Island to reduce the interception of sockeye bound for Cook Inlet. Hoping to get their nets on those fish, Maw and UCIDA were in the thick of things.
Ironically, friends of Johnstone believe there is a strong possibility he would have voted against the harvest reduction given weaknesses in the genetic data documenting the number of Inlet fish caught off Kodiak
Who will now get the extra sockeye that reach the Inlet, if any do, remains to be seen. The Board starts meeting in Anchorage on Feb. 7 to decide that question.
As always, it will be operating in the economic dark when it comes to allocation. The Board has a small army of biologists to advise it on the ecosystem management of fish. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game has not one economist to advise the Board on the economic management of salmon.
Commercial fishermen have long opposed the idea of managing for maximum economic benefit. The Mat-Su paid for the 2017 study of sport fishery values because Fish and Game had been ducking the sport fish value issue since 2007.
The Commercial Fisheries Division is the big dog in Fish and Game’s bureaucracy and likes to see itself as working cooperatively with its partners in the commercial fishing industry. In Kenai, they share offices in the same building.
It’s all rather cozy with the managers and the 1.5 percent. When the former leave state service, they regularly go to work for the latter. Kodiak commercial fishermen trying to hang onto those sockeye had former Commissioner of Fish and Game Denby Lloyd and just recently Deputy Commissioner Charlie Swanton working for them in Kodiak.
Before becoming deputy commissioner, Swanton was the director of the Sport Fish Division, but he never really seemed to have his heart in that job. And nobody in the state agency has their heart in worrying about the 80 percent.
As for the Board, it really has no way of determining what is in the best interest of the overwhelming majority of Alaskans because it is given neither data or advice. Why would the Board need it? Historically, it has largely bowed to the interests of the 1.5 percent.
It’s gotten away with this because the Alaska media has been largely afraid to touch fishery issues. The number-crunching Gimarc did is what some reporter should have done long ago, but none (including this one) did. Admittedly, there is a small disincentive. You have to pay to get the sportfish list.
Driven by curiosity, Gimarc bought it and started pulling together the data. He wanted to see how big the tail that shakes the dog, and he knew the media couldn’t be counted on.
“They don’t know,” he said. “They don’t care. They’re too busy. They want stuff to be given to them.”
Now it’s been given to them, but don’t expect them to do anything with it. Upsetting commercial fishing interests in Alaska is just not smart business. Ask Karl Johnstone.