As the Alaska Board of Fisheries prepares to take up the always heated issue of who gets to catch what salmon and how many in Cook Inlet, the Kenai Peninsula Borough assembly is lobbying to give state fishery biologists the authority to make these contentious and highly political socio-economic decisions.
And the Matanuska-Susitna Borough is trying to mobilize an army.
Tired of playing second fiddle to Kenai interests, the Mat-Su hopes to swarm the board with average Alaskans angry at an allocation process long dominated by the commercial interests that catch most of the fish.
There is no argument but that the 568 commercial operators who hold permits to drift gillnet in Cook Inlet plus the 735 with set gillnet permits – together a thin slice of the 1.5 percent who control the harvest of Alaska salmon – have punched above their weight for decades in the arena of Alaska fishery politics or what has come to be called simply “fishtics.”
Commercial fishermen well understand how the process works, and they work it. They put asses in the seats at Board meetings, and they keep them there. Commercial fishermen don’t testify, depart and expect the Board to be driven solely by the testimony.
Commercial fishermen hang around to talk up Board members and confer with other commercial fishermen to see how they might help each other’s interests. And it doesn’t end there.
Commercial fishermen stay active on local fish and game advisory committees and lobby board members and legislators year-round. The United Cook Inlet Drift Association (UCIDA) and the Kenai Peninsula Fishermen’s Association even share an office building with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game on the Kenai.
Commercial fishermen work the media, too. They have convinced many a journalist they are a small and embattled, rural minority pursuing a lifestyle threatened by sportsmen and sportwomen in an ever-growing Alaska. The reality is somewhat different.
The 1,303 Cook Inlet gillnet permits have changed hands nearly 5,000 times since the state imposed a limited entry system in the 1970s, according to the records of the Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission, and most of the people who hold the permits today are businessmen, doctors, lawyers, plumbers, contractors, politicians and others whose lifestyles are defined by their day jobs.
Long before identity politics became a national currency in the U.S., however, commercial fishermen understood the value and honed an image of the last cowboys of the sea stalked by the modern world.
The understood as well that politics, as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Commission preaches, is “all about relationships,” or at least it was until Donald Trump titled the stage toward the strategy of “monopolizing the microphone” as columnist and critic Virginia Heffernan has observed.
But the relationship value remains, and commercial fishermen work at it. Though sometimes accused of strong-arming the opposition, they far more often find success by making friends.
Against that backdrop came Kenai Borough Assemblyman Brent Johnson, an old commercial set gillnet fisherman from Clam Gulch, lobbying his fellow assembly members to pass a resolution urging the Board to follow the advice of state fishery biologists when deciding how many fish to allow into Inlet rivers and how to distribute the surplus among various fisheries.
Johnson got what he wanted. But what is most notable about this is that if you are a commercial fisherman, you don’t lobby for biologists to make the political decisions if you believe they are going to take a significant number of fish out of your nets and thus money out of your pocket.
Johnson’s belief state fishery biologists will do the most to maintain the status quo reflects the fear of commercial fishermen, who had former Gov. Bill Walker in their pocket, that a Fish Board with some new members appointed by Gov. Mike Dunleavy, a Mat-Su sport fishermen, might be inclined to listen more seriously to the “fair share” demands of non-commercial fishermen.
In explaining the thinking behind the resolution, in fact, Johnson skipped over the well-defined role of the Fish Board in developing guidelines for state fisheries management and told Kenai’s KSRM News this:
“The Alaska Department of Fish and Game has been delegated the responsibility of managing these salmon. The Alaska Board of Fisheries has been lobbied at recent meetings by entities who hire experts from outside of the Kenai Peninsula Borough. The Kenai Peninsula Borough has never hired a lobbyist or expert to attend Board of Fisheries meetings.”
Level playing field?
Johnson was referring to a decision by the Mat-Su to retain a respected, former state fisheries biologist now living in Montana to advise it on how to get more salmon through the Inlet’s commercial fishery and into the Susitna River drainage two years ago.
Sitting at the north end of the Inlet, the MatSu is at the mercy of commercial fisheries that intercept prized sockeye, coho (silver), and Chinook (king) salmon as they move toward the dozens of spawning tributaries that drain the 313-mile long, glacier-fed Susitna.
The last time the Board considered Inlet salmon allocations, the Mat-Su went into the meetings with the reasoned approach. It hired Southwick Associates, a respected economics consulting firm, to calculate the value of Cook Inlet-dependent sport fisheries, and it asked former state fisheries biologists to come up with a plan to pass the maximum number of Susitna fish through the commercial fisheries with the least loss to commercial fishermen.
The latter task is not an easy one. Commercial fishery management decisions for the Inlet are driven by the huge returns of sockeye salmon to the Kenai River and nearby Kasilof River. The difficulty for fishery managers is that much of the commercial fishing takes place far out in the Inlet where hundreds of thousands of Susitna fish intermingle with millions of Kenai-Kasilof fish.
Mat-Su tourism businesses have often paid the price when managers tried to maximize the harvest of the Kenai-Kasilof sockeye and cutoff Mat-Su coho in particular.
Dozens of people involved with Mat-Su tourism trooped before the Board two years ago to make the case that current management efforts were hurting their businesses and to argue that letting more salmon escape into Susitna streams was a better economic strategy for the state than putting the fish in the nets of a commercial fishery that has long claimed the bulk of the harvest.
The businessmen were backed by the Southwick study that concluded anglers in the Cook Inlet region in 2017 “spent $716.5 million on trip-related goods and services, pre-purchased packages, equipment and real estate used for fishing” and produced $31.7 million in state and local tax revenue.
That compared to a commercial fishing report from the McDowell Group, another economic consulting firm, that put the value of the commercial fishery at about $1.2 billion producing $411 million in labor income and $4.6 million in local taxes.
When adjusted for salmon volume – the commercial fishery regularly catches more than twice as many salmon as all other fisheries combined – the per-fish catch value leaned heavily toward the non-commercial fisheries.
All economists agree that on a per-fish basis, there is more money to be made in enticing a tourist to fly to Alaska to catch his or her own salmon and fly it home than to have the same person buy a commercially caught Alaska salmon at the grocery. It’s a simple matter of efficiency with the commercial fishery being far more efficient at producing fish and thus far less efficient in producing jobs and revenue in Alaska.
But the non-commercial fisheries in the Inlet can’t begin to harvest the number of surplus salmon returning to the region’s streams, which makes the commercial fishery a vital part of the picture from both economic and salmon management standpoints.
Economics, however, tend to get little consideration in the Board process. As former Board member Robert Ruffner from Kenai recently observed, it’s hard for Board members to get a handle on the economic numbers given the lack of an objective source of information.
Other state fish and wildlife agencies have economists on staff. Alaska doesn’t.
The Southwick report carried little weight with the Board two years ago. The body ignored the report’s conclusion that spending in the Mat-Su was down almost $150 million from the $864.9 million anglers spent in 2007 as well as the pleas from guides, businessmen and Mat-Su anglers who said the reason for the big monetary loss was obvious:
No fish, no fishermen.
The Board didn’t buy it. Instead of devising a plan to put more salmon in the Susitna, it did the opposite with then Board chairman John Jensen freely admitting that the actions “will allocate some more fish to the commercial fishermen who, in my opinion, gave them up.”
To the barricades!
Having failed to move the Board with reasoned arguments, the Mat-Su is this year trying for the first time a radically new attack.
The municipally sanctioned MSB Fish and Wildlife Commission has been actively soliciting and training fishermen and fishing interests for appearances before the Board. The Commission held a meeting in the Mat-Su Assembly chambers on Wednesday night to explain to borough residents “how to navigate the complex subject of salmon management as it relates to Upper Cook Inlet and give you the tools to make a difference
for salmon at the BOF meeting.”
The issues really aren’t that hard to navigate: Show up at the Board meeting, tell Board members you want fish; and then hang around through their days and days of discussions to make sure they get the point that you mean it.
Borough spokesman Stefan Hinman admitted the Mat-Su’s latest approach is new, and no one knows whether it will make a difference.
In the past, he emailed, the Borough has “created a ton of presentations, press releases, videos, newspaper columns and much more,” but then just “pushed out the information.”
In other words, the Borough provided the ammunition and hoped the troops would find it. This time around, it is making a more concerted effort to organize the troops to go to the Board meeting fully loaded.
“The stand-alone fisheries informational meeting…(Wednesday) is new,” he said, “as is the online testimony sign-up. Those are good things for sure, and we hope to see results.”
Commercial interests are worried about the possibility of those results. Commercial interests actively opposed Dunleavy in the election, and his appointment of a Mat-Su angler and former aide to the Fish Board hasn’t made commercial interests any less fearful the Board might become more receptive to the arguments of non-commercial fishermen.
Some have privately admitted to second thoughts about how heavily the industry went after Dunleavy.
Industry advocate and fisheries publicist Laine Welch, who the Anchorage Daily News bills as a “Kodiak journalist,” before the election sent an “action alert” to her Facebook followers urging them to change their voter registrations if necessary to get into the Republican primary and stop Dunleavy.
Welch proclaimed Dunleavy “would be a disaster for Alaska fishing communities and the fishing industry!! Any AK voter who is registered as Undeclared or Nonpartisan can vote in the August 21 primary where voters will choose between Dunleavy and Mead Treadwell as the candidate who will run against Walker (Independent) and Begich (Democrat).
“If you want to vote in the Republican primary (even if you do not intend to vote for a Republican in the Nov. general election) you must change your registration to U or N by July 20.”
Urging people to cross party lines to swing a primary election is generally considered a low-ball political tactic. It cannot have helped the Inlet’s commercial fishermen going into this meeting. The Board process is supposed to be apolitical, but people are inherently political animals.
Jensen, for instance, voted to take some Inlet catch away from commercial fishermen after being reappointed to the Board by Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, and then voted to do the exact opposite after being reappointed to the Board by Walker.
A commercial fisherman from Petersburg first appointed to the Board by Gov. Frank Murkowski in 2003, Jensen is the ultimate survivor. With his latest term due to expire in June of this year and with Dunleavy now in control of his future on the Board, there is no telling how Jensen might vote this time around.
All of this has advocates of Mat-Su fisheries thinking they might see a shift in Board direction, but they’ve thought that before only to come away disappointed. The Board starts meeting in Anchorage on Friday.