The tax, which the Alaska Legislature obliging called an “assessment” in an effort to avoid an Alaska Constitutional prohibition on dedicated taxes, was intended to benefit private, non-profit aquaculture corporations controlled by commercial fishermen.
As the scheme was designed, the hatchery corporations – or “associations” as they were officially called – would run a system of hatcheries to fill the ocean off the 49th state with a bounty of “common property” salmon to benefit Alaskans of all sorts – commercial fishermen, personal-use fishermen, sport fishermen, even subsistence fishermen.
Though Alex sued over the tax, it wasn’t his real concern. His fear was that the hatcheries would one day come to replace fishermen like himself.
Jump ahead now 39 years and turn your attention north from Juneau for 550 miles to the city of Seward at the head of Resurrection Bay.
It is in this Bay the Alaska Department of Fish and Game now says the Cook Inlet Regional Aquaculture Association (CIAA) this year “anticipates a total return of 211,700 sockeye salmon returning to Resurrection Bay release sites…with 189,000 of those harvested for cost recovery.”
CIAA is one of those associations that Alex, who died in 2018, worried would one day replace commercial fishermen.
He and his co-plaintiffs, it should be noted, won their lawsuit against the dedicated tax back in 1982 though it wasn’t easy. The state, and the aquaculture associations that lobbied to set up the system, pushed the case all the way to the state Supreme Court, which sided with Alex.
“We agree and hold that since the constitution prohibits the dedication of any source of revenue, including both ‘taxes’ and ‘special assessments,’ the assessments authorized by AS 16.10.530 are ‘proceeds of a state tax or license,’ within the meaning of Article IX, section 7, whether or not the salmon assessments fit the definition of ‘special assessments,'” the high court ruled.
The plaintiffs’ victory was short-lived.
The Legislature quickly went back and rewrote the law. The assessment was called what it was, a tax. And the funds collected were officially stipulated for inclusion in the general fund with the added provision that “the Alaska Legislature may appropriate salmon enhancement tax revenue to provide financing for qualified regional aquaculture associations.”
As it has many times been said, “you can’t fight City Hall.’
The state has been funneling money to the hatchery associations for decades now. In recent years, the payouts have ranged from $6.5 to $9 million per year, but given that this doesn’t fully cover the cost of running the hatcheries, the cost-recovery program was begun in 2006.
This was creatively called a “Common Property Fishery Assessment” to allow the hatcheries to set up a private fishing zone in which they could contract with a few fishermen to catch a lot of fish to cover hatchery operating costs.
CIAA is this year operating one of those cost-recovery zones to ensure it can collect more than 89 percent of the “common property” salmon it produced in its hatchery. Alaskans will get to share the other 11 percent.
If, of course, the 211,700 come back this year. Sockeye runs around Southcentral Alaska are now looking generally weak. If fewer than 211,700 come back to the Bay, it is possible CIAA could get them all.
I can almost hear Alex saying “I told you so.”
Alex was one of those people better than most at seeing ahead down the road. It made him a very successful fisherman. When it came to technology, he was an “early adapter” before the term became common.
Alex’s seiner was for a time tied up in a Juneau harbor not far from the bluewater sailboat on which I was living at the time, and Alex regularly invited me aboard to show off new tech. He introduced me to side-scan sonar sometime in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Side-scan sonar provides a picture of what is going in the water under and around a boat if, needless to say, you know how to read the video display. When Alex spun the scan around Harris Harbor, it looked like little more than a bunch of blobs and strange shapes, but he patiently explained what they were all showing.
It was a little like sitting with a doctor explaining what you’re seeing in a sonogram or a CT scan. Alex was in awe of the technology. He explained how it not only helped him find salmon but allowed him to watch a seine net as it surrounded and then fully encircle a school of the fish.
He was said to have sometimes got the net around so many fish his boat couldn’t hold the full load.
“…During his career, he contributed many things to the fishing industry. including the Marco auto baiter, helped in the design of the Marco Seine block and other fishing techniques and practices,” his obituary noted at his death at the age of 80 in 2018. “His hobbies included boxing, archery, playing guitar, gunsmith, hunting, traveling and visiting with friends, writing letters to the editor at local papers. He was a legend to many and will be missed greatly.”
Maybe it was that letter writing that led him to try to school a reporter at the Juneau Empire. Who knows. I never asked. I simply appreciated his intelligence and willingness to share his knowledge.
Sometimes now, it’s hard to avoid wondering if more commercial fishermen shouldn’t have paid attention to him and his co-plaintiffs back at the start of the 80s, though this must be said in defense of the hatcheries:
They are efficient.
In a world trying to cut carbon emissions tied to internal combustion engines, there is an argument to be made for consolidating Alaska salmon harvests at hatcheries instead of burning a lot of hydrocarbon fuel to chase fish around in the ocean.
Not to mention that those cost-recovery harvests in terminal areas near the hatchery or the release sites where the hatchery fish were dumped in the ocean reduce to almost zero the problems of bycatch and mixed-stocks harvests that have haunted some of the state’s commercial fisheries.
The Washington-state-based Wild Fish Conservancy is already in federal court trying to shut down one such fishery off Alaska. Pointing to studies indicating that “fewer than 3 percent of the Chinook caught in the ocean off Southeast Alaska are from Alaska. Over 97 percent of these Chinook are from British Columbia, Washington and Oregon rivers.”
The Conservancy contends the Alaska fishery is responsible for cutting off the food supply for a southern resident killer whale population that has shrunk from 100 animals to 72.