Almost 50 years have passed since Alaska voters approved an amendment to the state constitution that allowed those in power to manage the state’s common property resources “subject to preferences among beneficial uses.”
And the Alaska Board of Fisheries now faces a historic opportunity to use that preference to redefine the “beneficial uses” in the waterway at the doorstep of the state’s largest city to put Joe Alaskan at the head of the line.
Whether the Board will show the courage to stand up against some of the state’s most powerful political interests to do this remains to be seen.
As most Alaskans know, the constitutional amendment in question paved the way for limited entry in the state’s commercial fisheries, and commercial fishing has ever since been treated as the beneficial use despite the legal reference to the plural “uses.”
Over the decades that followed passage of the amendment, limited entry put hundreds of millions of dollars into the pockets of the 49th state’s 1.5 percent, and even more into the coffers of the collection of Seattle and foreign-based fish processors that control the commercial fishing industry.
The constitutional amendment was a great deal for all of them, and a bad deal for the majority of Alaskans.
Average Alaskans got little or nothing out of the deal, and sometimes less than nothing. Select communities with fish processing plants benefitted from a raw fish tax split with the state, and up until the state eliminated the personal income tax in 1980, successful commercial fishermen helped pay the costs of the state managing the fish to prevent overfishing and maintain harvestable annual surpluses.
Once the income tax went away, however, the river started to flow the other way. Oil revenues belonging to all Alaskas were used to subsidize the costs of managing and policing the state’s commercial fisheries.
The Legislative Research Agency in fiscal year 1994 found that commercial fishing revenues covered only 70 percent of state expenditures on the fisheries. Eleven years later, a report by the University of Alaska Institute of Social and Economic Research (ISER) found the situation largely unchanged.
ISER that year estimated Alaskans were subsidizing the commercial fishing business to the tune of about $24 million per year.
Meanwhile, commercial fisheries dominated harvests – often impairing or in some cases eliminating opportunities for average Alaskans to catch fish and costing the tourism industry – one of Alaska’s few growth industries – millions of dollars.
A study conducted for the Matanuska-Susitna Borough by a respected economics consulting firm concluded the lack of fish in streams draining into Cook Inlet reduced the tourism from an $864.9 million industry in 2007 to a $716.5 million industry in 2017.
Though Southwick Associations did not calculate the total losses as the industry in the Anchorage metro area and on the Kenai Peninsula shrank from 2007 on, the losses would appear to be into the hundreds of millions of dollars.
Today, the Alaska Department of Fish and Game estimates commercial fishermen continue to lay claim to about 99 percent of the state’s fish harvest. Sportfishing by Alaskans and tourists combined accounts for less than 0.3 percent – three-tenths of one percent – despite the stories told by commercial fishermen of a mythical mountain of salmon-filled coolers tourists are said to lug with them to Anchorage’s Ted Steven International Airport on their way back to the Lower 48 states.
Commercial fishing interests own Alaska, and yet the state’s commercial fishing propagandists, with help from their enablers in Alaska’s mainstream media, have somehow managed to paint themselves as an embattled minority threatened by the state’s growing population.
And there has never been a Board with the courage to truly stand up to the bullies who dominate the commercial fishing lobby. This Board might be different, and it has this year been handed a mechanism for change.
The Kenai River Sportfishing Association (KSRA) submitted to the Board a proposal to prioritize the “preferences among beneficial uses” in Cook Inlet. All the Board has to do is vote to approve it as presented or amended.
I freely admit to some issues with the KSRA list, which essentially makes personal-use dipnetting the primary use of Inlet salmon.
The list doesn’t use the words dipnet or dipnetting, but the personal-use fishery is the gear type that best fits the first priority of “providing residents with fish for personal and family consumption.”
Given that about the only fishing I do anymore is with a dipnet, I should be selfishly all for this, but the standard ignores the majority of Alaskans who don’t fish and don’t live in homes with fishermen.
What matters most to those people is a healthy Alaska economy, which should render the second-rank preference – “the importance of each fishery to the economy of the state” – number one.
To stop here and put the list in terms more easily understandable to the average reader, the Cook Inlet fishery with the most importance to the economy of the state would be the sport fishery, given that the waterways draining into the Inlet are the focus of most Alaska sport fishing.
Commercial fishing is at number three on the KSRA list – “the importance of each fishery to the local and regional economy” – although the sport and commercial fisheries could be viewed as dueling that one out on the Kenai Peninsula.
The other criteria could be considered something of tiebreakers:
- 4) The number of residents and non-residents who have, and who likely will, participate in each fishery
- 5) The historic use of each fishery
- 6) The importance of each fishery in providing recreational opportunities
Basically, in real-world terms, the list seeks to make dipnetting the prime preference with sportfishing number two and commercial fishing number three. I’d put sportfishing number one and entertain arguments on the positioning of the other two.
(For the record: I used to be a serious angler, but I didn’t wet a line last summer. The year before, I might have sport fished twice, Maybe. It could have been once. Suffice to say, I have no dog in this fight other than that of the 80 percent of Alaskans who don’t bother to get a fishing license, and that interest is the economy.)
Where dipnetting and commercial fishing should fall is hard to tell, and it probably doesn’t make much difference.
Commercial fishermen are going to continue to catch the majority of Inlet salmon for years to come because all other user groups lack the harvest capacity to do so. Meanwhile, managing for a sportfish preference would automatically force managers to put more fish in-river which improves the dipnet fishery, which is admittedly a great Alaska bennie for those who love to eat salmon.
Being able to pick up a free permit to go dipnet a load of fish to fill the freezer for the winter helps a lot of people stretch their food dollars. From 20,000 to 30,000 Alaskans take advantage of this every summer, according to Fish and Game data.
On an individual level, it’s a great deal. How much it boosts the economy is hard to know. There isn’t a lot of economic data available on the spending of dipnetters.
My personal-use fish come very cheaply, which is not a big plus for others. A neighbor who is a former commercial fisherman contends, however, that the average dipnetter spends thousands of dollars per year on gear – nets, four-wheelers, boats, coolers, wader and more – to catch relatively few fish.
If that’s the case, the dipnet fishery might have a bigger economic footprint than it at first appears. The economic value of the commercial fishery is better documented.
Fish and Game, for instance, calculated the average Inlet sockeye was worth $8.50 to a commercial fishermen in the Inlet in 2018. Let’s consider this for a minute.
The state has a three percent tax on commercial fish landed at a shore-based processor. So each average sockeye delivered to a fish processor at the mouth of the Kenai River would have contributed 25.5 cents to state coffers in 2018.
Upstream on the Kenai River, tourists are not required to pay taxes on their catches, but they are required to buy licenses. A one-day, non-resident fishing license costs $25.
The average non-resident leaves the state with something like one and a half salmon, according to Fish and Game statistics. So the non-resident angler who buys a $25, one-day license pays an effective state tax of $16.66 per fish.
If she gets lucky and catches her limit of three Kenai sockeye, the effective tax falls to $8.33 per fish. About 44 percent of the licenses sold in Alaska last year were good for only one day, according to Fish and Game data.
Those 121,000 people paid a whopper of an effective tax rate even if they caught a limit. Anglers who bought three-day, $45; seven-day, $70; 14-day, $105; or season-long, $145, licenses could have driven down the cost of what they were paying the state for each fish if they caught a lot.
After the one-day license, the week-long license was the most popular. If that angler caught 21 sockeye – the standard three-fish limit on the Kenai every day for a week – she would have paid the state an effective tax rate of $3.33 cents per fish or more than 13 times what a commercial fisherman – resident or nonresident – pays the state for each fish.
A 14-day license and a limit every day would result in an effective per fish tax of $2.50. That’s still about 10 times what a commercial fisherman – resident or nonresident – is paying the state.
For a nonresident angler to get his costs down to what a commercial fishermen pays the state for a fish, he’d have to buy a season-long license and catch 568.6 salmon. That’s three per day for 189.5 days. Even if the limit on the Kenai went to six fish per day, something which happens when runs are strong, this harvest goal is impossible.
Commercial fishermen in Alaska simply get a steal of a deal from the state. The numbers bring to mind the story an accountant new to the state tells of going to work on the books of a commercial fisherman. When he’s done adding up the costs and the revenues, he can’t help but ask the obvious question:
“Where’s the cost of your fish?”
The confused fisherman can only respond, “What cost for the fish?”
“The cost you pay the state for the resource you take from state water.”
To which the fisherman answers, “We don’t pay the state anything, but we do have to catch the damn fish.”
No other industry gets a deal like this. The oil industry would kill to be told it could get away with paying the state only 3 percent of what its resource is worth at the wellhead. It now pays far more than that just for the opportunity to go look for oil.
The 3 percent tax is basically a resource giveaway.
And in rural parts of the state where fish are about the only thing available to support a local economy, basically giving the fish away makes sense. It doesn’t make sense around Cook Inlet where the state makes far more money on the effective taxes tourists pay, and local governments, if the Mat-Su Borough study is to be believed, make more money on sales and property taxes imposed on anglers than they do on fish taxes.
One could almost argue that the way things are run now borders on illegal in a state where the constitution calls 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.”
The people at this time aren’t getting the maximum benefit. And despite what drift gillnetter Dave Martin told the Board, they definitely won’t get the maximum benefit from putting fewer fish in the Kenai River to appease the rantings of commercial fishermen who contend the river is now being managed for something other than “maximum sustained yield (MSY).”
Martin also told the Board that MSY is a constitutional requirement. It’s not.
What the constitution says is this: “Fish, forests, wildlife, grasslands, and all other replenishable resources belonging to the State shall be utilized, developed, and maintained on the sustained yield principle, subject to preferences among beneficial uses.”
“Sustained yield” comes in a whole bunch of varieties of which MSY is but one. If one reads the constitution, it is clear the founding fathers weren’t that concerned about which variation was used. What they were most concerned about was the use of state resources “for the maximum benefit of its people.”
Cook Inlet has too long been managed for the maximum benefit of about 1,300 commercial fishermen. Some day some Fish Board will step up and do its duty to put the interests of the state’s people above the interest of that entitled user group.
The only question is whether it will be this Board.