Angry that the Alaska Board of Fisheries no longer follows the dictates of Cook Inlet commercial fishermen and that federal authorities have refused to seize control of the management Inlet salmon, the United Cook Inlet Drifters Association (UCIDA) has come up with a new business strategy:
Recall Gov. Mike Dunleavy.
“…To push back against the Dunleavy administration’s efforts to eliminate our valuable, sustainable industry. We can all use our influence to get other commercial fishing groups across the state to join with us.” the organization says in a “update” letter to members and friends posted on its website.
“We can support the Recall Dunleavy campaign with our signatures, and later, our votes.”
The letter also hints at more litigation, but concedes that will have to wait until after the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), a division of the U.S. Department of Commerce, approves a decision by the North Pacific Fishery Management Council to ban salmon fishing in the federal waters of the 180-mile-long finger of the North Pacific Ocean that punches into Alaska’s underbelly.
There is no evidence the Dunleavy administration is trying to eliminate the Inlet’s commercial fishery. But the Alaska Department of Fish and Game did suggest to the Council that rather than setting up a costly and difficult to manage federal fishery for salmon in the southwest end of the Inlet, the Council could simply close the area to salmon fishing and the state would manage the harvests in state waters inside three miles of the coast.
The Council later endorsed that idea.
The state long managed the fishery in the Inlet’s federal waters, but UCIDA went to court in 2013 unhappy about the state permitting a small but steady trickle of salmon harvest to slip away from the Inlet’s approximately 1,300 commercial permit holders to satisfy the needs and desires of hundreds of thousands of anglers and dipnetters in a then-growing state.
The organization was confident that if it could get the Council, an entity dominated by commercial fishing interests, to take over management, commercial fishermen would regain control of salmon allocation in the Cook Inlet region.
Only things didn’t work out that way.
Federal judges agreed with UCIDA that the Council was technically violating the provisions of the Magnuson-Stevens Fisheries Conservation and Management Act by letting the state manage Inlet salmon in federal waters in the absence of a Council-approved management plan.
And the California-based Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals in 2018 ordered the Council to write such a plan. UCIDA members were confident that would mean more fish in their nets and more money in their pockets.
As the federal planning process dragged its way through the slow and ponderous federal regulatory system, UCIDA even tried to expand the federal reach. It went back to court to ask a judge to tell the Council to write a plan to not only manage salmon harvests in the federal waters at the southern end of the Inlet offshore from the community of Homer, but to take over management of salmon throughout their range in Southcentral Alaska.
UCIDA’s pitch to the federal courts was that its members couldn’t survive on the lion’s share of a 10-year average harvest of 3.2 million Inlet sockeyes and that the state was trying to minimize rather than maximize the return of those salmon to, in the words of UCIDA attorney Jason Morgan, “put my client out of business.”
The state has denied the accusation. State fisheries biologists have noted the Inlet’s salmon belong to all Alaskans – not just UCIDA fishermen – and it is not in the interest of any Alaskans to minimize salmon returns.
UCIDA represents approximately 570 gillnetters who hold limited entry permits to roam the Inlet in search of salmon, according to the Alaska Commercial Fisheries Entry Commission numbers. Another approximately 730 gillnetters hold permits allowing them to fish shore-bound set gillnets.
The drift fishery is considerably more profitable than the set-net fishery, according to CFEC records, which reflect a 10-year, annual, average gross of about $44,000 per summer for drifters versus $24,000 for setters.
As those numbers make obvious, most of the fishermen involved in the Inlet fishery hold other jobs, but have long fought aggressively to hang onto the money they make off a public resource, and UCIDA has been the leader of the pack.
Over the years, it has been extremely successful in protecting its interest. Eighty to more than 90 percent of the salmon caught in and around the Inlet have historically ended up in the nets of commercial fishermen.
Subsistence, personal-use dipnet and rod-and-reel fisheries in which hundreds of thousands of fishermen participate for food security or for sport have for decades been left to make do with what salmon are left.
Many commercial fishermen consider this fair given that Alaska voters in 1972 amended the state Constitution to freeze the number of participants in the commercial fisheries and limit who could enter the business going forward.
The state’s subsequent Limited Entry Act handed out free permits to most of the fishermen then in business. Limited entry was intended to aid their bottom lines by reducing competition for the fish when salmon runs across the state were faltering and to make it easier for fishery managers to control harvests in order to begin rebuilding those runs.
Some commercial fishermen, however, took the amendment as a grant of ownership to the resource and have ever since battled with state regulators attempting to balance the allocation of salmon harvests between commercial and non-commercial interests.
Statewide, according to Fish and Game, commercial fisheries harvest about 98.5 percent of all wild resources – both fish and wildlife. But commercial interests get a much smaller percentage in the Cook Inlet region surrounding Anchorage, the state’s largest city.
That has made inevitable a history of “fish wars” that date back to before statehood.
In a 2004 history of Inlet fisheries, Alaska Fish and Game anthropologist Jim Fall outlined how commercial interests first squeezed out the aboriginal peoples who first fished the region’s rivers and then took aim at others who appeared on the scene over the decades.
“Homesteaders (in the 1940s and ’50s) took fish for household consumption by several methods,” Fall wrote. “Snagging with a rod and reel was one of the most efficient methods for people unfamiliar with riverine net fishing. Homesteaders found snagging to be the most economical and efficient legal method, and it worked well in the fast flowing waters of many rivers and streams where nets would be swept away or caught on snags. Nets were effective in parts of the river, especially near stream mouths and in quiet eddies or pools.”
In 1952, commercial interests convinced the state’s territorial governors to ban netting fish in rivers. The netters were forced to Inlet beaches where it was harder to catch fish. Many of the homesteaders and local Natives turned to snagging.
But as the territory grew into a state and the population increased, that fishing technique came under fire as too efficient.
“Snagging was restricted to the head in 1969,” Fall wrote. “By 1973, snagging any part of the fish was made illegal. This rule greatly reduced the local meat fishermen’s ability to harvest fish for home use. More local residents headed to the beaches of Cook Inlet to fish with gill nets in the subsistence fishery.”
Or they illegally snagged salmon in the then growing rod and reel fisheries. Sport fishing – which mainly involved snagging non-biting sockeye salmon in the mouth – steadily expanded in part to meet the food security needs of regional residents, but in larger part to attract anglers from the Lower 48 to fuel the state’s growing tourism industry.
“By the early 1980s the sportfishing industry was growing rapidly on the Kenai Peninsula and became a major competitor with the commercial and subsistence fisheries,” Fall wrote. “In the 1980s, the Alaska Board of Fisheries added more restrictions on both subsistence and personal use fishing along the Kenai Peninsula’s Cook Inlet beaches; beaches were closed to subsistence gillnetting and by the mid 1990s only two personal use fisheries remained at the mouths of the Kenai and Kasilof rivers.”
The personal use fisheries were a vestige of a 1998 lawsuit that led the state Supreme Court to rule that all Alaskans are entitled to harvest state resources for food or what is in Alaska called “subsistence.” Subsistence dipnet fisheries functioned for a couple of years in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers before the Board of Fisheries created “non-subsistence zones” near the state’s major urban areas.
That decision allowed the Board to free itself from the state law requiring subsistence fisheries be given a priority over all other fisheries. The action was a big win for commercial fishermen who have sometimes lost a fish-war skirmish here and there, but have overall won more than they have lost.
In Cook Inlet, they were the biggest winners when the depressed salmon runs of the 1960s and early 1970s began to rebound into the 1980s.
An average commercial harvest of 980,000 sockeye per year from 1960 to 1975 increased to 4.4 million per year in the 1980s and thereafter settled in at about 3 million per year. Non-commercial fisheries benefited from the larger returns as well as commercial fishermen, but more than 80 percent of the the growing number of salmon went to the Inlet’s commercial fishermen.
Non-commercial fishermen started pushing back against the lopsided allocation in the 1980s, first over king and coho (silver) salmon, but the battle later spread to include tasty, red-fleshed, hard-fighting and plentiful sockeye salmon.
Sockeye, also known as red salmon, are the bread and butter of Inlet gillnetters. The fish provide 85 percent of the revenue in the fishery, according to CFEC records. Chum salmon – sold as “keta” in many markets – comprise another 10 percent.
The latter are little pursued by non-commercial fishermen, but sockeye are highly prized in both the rod-and-reel and dipnet fisheries. Twenty-five thousand to almost 28,000 Alaskans flocked to the mouth of the Kenai to dipnet sockeye in the 2010s, and caught more than 500,000 of those fish in the first two years of the last decade, according to Alaska Department of Fish and Game records.
Both fishing effort and catches fell in the years that followed, but clicked upward to a catch of 331,000 in 2019 after bottoming out at 165,000 the year before due to a very weak return to the river. The 2018 run to the Kenai River, the main driver of Inlet sockeye harvests, was a notable bust.
An expected commercial harvest of 1.9 million fish ended up at about only two-thirds of that at 1.3 million. Biologists had no solid explanation for what were in general weak returns of sockeye all around the Gulf of Alaska, but UCIDA had and has an answer: mismanagement.
In its latest letter to members, it says the decision by the NPFMC to close federal waters to commercial salmon fishing and let the state manage harvests in adjacent waters “simply allow(s) the state of Alaska to continue its gross mismanagement of the salmon stocks that has led to multiple fishery disasters.”
The organization is wedded to the idea that the state is permitting too many sockeye to escape the nets of fishermen and enter Inlet rivers. As a result, “over-escapement” is hampering reproduction and resulting in a loss of maximum “yield” in UCIDA’s view.
Fisheries biologists generally consider the argument poppycock, but UCIDA contends that state management fails to meet federal requirements for “maximum sustained yield” and because of that the state is violating federal law.
The NPFMC, an organization dominated by commercial fishing interests, didn’t buy it when it was presented the arguments. But a UCIDA leadership tied to a profitable past isn’t giving up.
It’s vision of the way things should be is rooted in the heady days of the fishery from 1985 to 1994 when – despite the Exxon Valdez oil spill shutting down nearly all commercial fishing in 1989 – the annual gross for a drift netter averaged $113,000, according to CFEC records.
Earnings have been eroding pretty much ever since. The average for the last five years is down closer to $20,000 per year, but for many commercial drift netters $100,000-plus remains the reference point,
UCIDA members appear unaware salmon markets have changed radically in the last 20 years.
While limited entry capped the number of salmon fishermen in Alaska, it didn’t alter the market for salmon. Market demand for the fish and a limited wild supply sparked a boom in salmon farming that continues to this day.
About 75 percent of the salmon consumed in the world today is farmed, and the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) is predicting another 3 percent increase in farmed salmon this year despite problems caused by the global pandemic, which hit hard at labor-intensive wild salmon fisheries in Alaska and Russia.
Costs went up as processors were forced to introduce safety measures to protect processing employees. That forced down the prices paid to fishermen for their catch.
Highly automated processing plants associated with fish farms that produce fish of a uniform size did not face near the labor difficulties.
“….Salmon generally weathered the effects of the pandemic better than most other major species, particularly in Europe,” the FAO reported. “Salmon’s versatility, together with the sector’s marketing experience and financial resources, meant that the adjustments necessary to shift sales focus (from COVID-closed restaurants) to retail could be made rapidly and effectively. This transition was aided by the dip in prices observed in the second half of the year, opening up opportunities for promotional campaigns. Some industry stakeholders have claimed that newly developed retail demand has in fact almost entirely compensated for the reduction in food-service sales.
“Meanwhile, September prices for Chilean fresh fillets into the United States of America were down to USD 3.95 per kilogram ($1.80 per pound) relative to USD 4.95 ($2.25) one year ago. In Chile in particular, these prices are approaching breakeven for some companies.”
The low prices are tied to stiff competition between salmon farmers who now dominate the market. Unfortunately for Alaska commercial fishermen, the farmed fish set the market standard for pricing.
This market reality renders a fantasy UCIDA visions of a return to the good old days in the Inlet for commercial fishermen.
No matter who UCIDA sues, no matter who the governor, the near $2.50 per pound prices paid for sockeye in the late 1980s (near $5.50 per pound when adjusted for inflation to 2021) are never to be seen again.
The key battle has been lost, and yet somehow the war goes on.