Simple solution

The 21st-century manner in which Alaska salmon were caught in the early 20th century

The third rock from the sun in the Milky Way galaxy is a planet in a constant state of change inhabited by lifeforms that either adapt or perish.

Yes, we’re talking here about the planet called earth. No, we are not talking about climate change which earth has experienced regularly through the millennia and which is believed to have forced the once-dominant life form – the dinosaurs – to evolve, ie. adapt, into what we now call “birds”.

Evolution, however, is not just a biological process. Among the species homo sapien – the most intellectually developed lifeform ever to roam the planet – it happens on cultural, economic and social levels as well.

Sometimes for the bad and sometimes for good. Or what most humans see as good, the concepts of good and bad being very human constructs. The Nazi vision of good, for instance – that of a planet dominated and run by blue-eyed, blonde-haired “Aryans” – was so bad as to push any reasonable individuals’ vision of bad to the very end of the scale where exists evil.

But this isn’t about politics, which can lead entire societies to embrace evil, or cultures, which have a bad history of doing likewise.

In what many now view as that idyllic time in Alaska before the arrival of the white man, things weren’t so idyllic for everyone.

“The native peoples,” as the Canadian historian Christon Irving Archer has written, “were aggressive in defense of their territories and often extremely warlike in their relations with their neighbors.

“Most slaves – men, women, and children – were captured in wars and
raids against neighboring villages, and the aggressors made every effort
to utilize surprise and stealth. Slaves might also be obtained through trade
networks, as gifts from one owner to another, through common people enslaving themselves due to poverty or debt, and through chiefs enslaving
orphans and other members of their own bands.

“Slaves could be killed by their owners for any reason, including ritual celebrations connected with funerals, whale hunts, new houses, and other

The Tlingits of Southeast Alaska were so invested in slavery that they in 1886 sued the U.S. government claiming that as a sovereign tribal nation they had the right to continue practicing slavery even though it had been outlawed nationwide in 1865.

“I’ve told my students that we are prone to romanticizing our culture and history, but to understand the reality and complexity of our culture, we need to assess both the positive and negative aspects of our culture,”  Tlingit anthropologist Rosita Worl writes now on the blog of Tlingit-run Sealaska Heritage. “In this instance, the reality is that slavery was a common practice among the Tlingits and all the tribes of the Northwest Coast.  Estimates suggest that one-third of the Tlingit population during the mid-1800s were slaves.”

Alaska’s ugly past

After exhaustive research, the anthropologist Leland Donald concluded economics drove the Tlingits to use slaves for the same reason it drove Southern cotton farmers to use slaves. Slaves provided cheap labor and themselves became a marketable commodity.

Economics trumped morality in Alaska then just as economics trumped any sense of conservation as the white race rolled West across North America. The country’s conservation movement was born there in the decimation of fish and wildlife resources.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife records its roots stretching back to the “dramatic decline of the nation’s fish and wildlife resources during the last quarter of the 19th century. The agency’s history has closely mirrored the American public’s growing concern with conservation and environmental issues for over 125 years.”

The federal government brought the first scientific management of fisheries to the Alaska Territory at the start of the 20th century and for decades enjoyed great success.

Commercial harvest records show catches growing from around 20 million fish per year in 1900 to over 120 million by the mid-1930s before cooling ocean waters in the North Pacific began to lower production.

That marked the start of a slow but steady decline that has been wrongly and widely blamed on federal management and fish traps.  Such a conclusion overlooks the fact the salmon fisheries didn’t hit rock bottom until 1972 – 12 years after the state took over management.

There are no salmon species with a 12-year-long life cycles.

By 1972, the traps were long gone, not because of conservation issues but because of political and economic issues which trumped conservation.

“Opposition to the hated fish trap provided the political fuel for the statehood movement,” economist Steve Colt wrote in a history of the traps compiled more than two decades ago. “The opponents of traps thought that banning them would create significant jobs, population, and economic growth in the infant territory of Alaska.”

Prior to statehood, Alaska political activists believed that they could wrest control of the state’s fisheries from processors based in the Pacific Northwest in the same way Alaska political activists of the 1980s believed they could control the global salmon market by banning net-pen fish farming in the 49th state.

Neither belief panned out. Both beliefs were driven more by emotion than judgment.

The “anti-trap case,” the late Alaska economist George Rogers observed, was “emotionally distorted to the point where even Alaskans who have never seen one would readily brand them as ‘fish killers’ and look upon them as the very embodiment of evil in this world….It could also be said that as long as traps continued in operation, they could serve a number of useful political purposes. The local candidate for public office could always resort to taking a staunch stand against traps and count on the other issues being drowned out by ringing applause.”

Colt concluded that getting rid of the traps did nothing for conservation:

“While the number of traps dropped to essentially zero, the number of purse seine boats increased by 45 percent. The total catching power of the drift gillnet fleet (measured in fathoms of netting) remained stable. At pre-ban average productivity, the increased boats were just sufficient to replicate the 1955-59 catch of 38 million fish.

“Thus there was an almost perfect substitution of mobile gear physical fishing effort when traps were banned. Total catch increased substantially because the average catch per boat increased.”

Money, money, money

Economically, the returns were mixed. The state gained a significant number of seasonal jobs, but not much in the way of revenue:

“…When traps were banned, more than 6,000 additional fishermen could enter the industry, but all the rents from traps were lost. Only when Alaska instituted a limited entry system in 1972 did society begin to reap substantial rents from the world’s most productive salmon fishery.

“The long-term data also show that Alaska salmon fishermen have been consistently rescued from their own declining physical productivity by rising real prices. The periodic need to exit the industry has been minimized, but only by luck. Recent price pressure from ever-increasing supplies of farmed salmon has changed this picture.

“The ex-vessel value of salmon declined from a 1988 peak of $781 million to $362 million in 1996 despite a 50 percent increase in harvest volume. Starting from a zero-profit equilibrium, these downward price shocks have induced full-blown “natural disasters” in coastal Alaska, complete with federal aid.

“It may be time for Alaskans to reconsider the fish trap.”

Colt made that last observation in his report in February 2000. Suffice to say, traps were not reconsidered. They remain victims of one of those romanticized views of which Worl wrote, and of the Alaska limited-entry system that created an entitled class of fishermen.

The act itself gave those fishermen no legal ownership of the state’s salmon, but it did lead them to create one of these state’s most powerful political machines to preserve what they consider to be their ownership interest in the fish.

The machine generally worked very well up until Alaskans elected Republican Mike Dunleavy as governor in 2018. Dunleavy promptly appointed a Commissioner of Fish and Game more interested in conservation than the preservation of the interests of commercial fishermen and named to the regulation-setting Board of Fisheries, people with similar views.

The consequences were both good and bad in Cook Inlet. The Dunleavy appointees have stood firm on trying to protect the fabled king salmon of the Kenai River from overfishing.

When it became clear this year’s run was as weak as those in 2020 and 2019 – both of which failed to meet minimum spawning goals – Commissioner of Fish and Game Doug Vincent-Lang shut down all fishing for Chinook, and the Board subsequently backed him up.

As a result, the number of big kings counted past a Kenai sonar counter has more than doubled since the closures. A return that was seriously lagging behind the disastrous return of 2020 is now more than 600 fish ahead of last year’s count at 10,491.

The run is still almost certain to fall short of the minimum goal of 15,000, but it is equally certain to get a lot closer than it would have if fishing had continued.

The bad news is that the closure of commercial set gillnet fisheries on the east side of upper Cook Inlet has helped to allow way more sockeye salmon into the Kenai than desired.

The count as of Wednesday was 1.9 million. It is certain to go over 2 million and might well exceed the 2.3 million that went upriver in 1989 when commercial fishing in the Inlet was closed due to the Exxon Valdez oil spill.

Even if in-river fishermen are able to catch 300,000 to 400,000, as they have in some years, the number of spawners is sure to end up well over the goal of a maximum of 1.3 million. There is a lot of debate among fisheries biologists as to what this could mean.

“Over-escapement” of salmon, as this is called, has generally, though not always, resulted in a loss of “yield.” What that means in simple terms is that the ratio of the return per spawner drops.

For example, instead of three fish returning for every spawner, there might be only two or even one. That’s not a big deal for anglers, who largely take their catch out of the fish counted past the sonar which has a goal of at least 750,000 sockeye.

But it is a big deal for commercial fishermen who might lose a lot of valuable salmon flesh. A million fish in-river reproducing at the rate of four-to-one, equals 4  million fish coming back in the next sockeye cycle.

Two million fish producing at the rate of two-to-one equals the same number returnign, but with commercial fishery having sacrificed a million sockeye for nothing, And if the return comes back at less than two-to-one – something which has happened – the commercial could lose a lot more still.

Better management

A Kenai River fish trap could quickly solve this problem. A properly designed fish trap would allow its operators to pass all the Chinook unharmed and shift the sockeye into a holding pen to be scooped out for delivery to processors as desired.

Businessmen Bob Penney, a longtime advocate for protecting Kenai Chinook and the worst nightmare of the Inlet’s commercial fishermen, suggested just such a trap almost three decades ago.

He offered up a design for a trap near the outlet of Skilak Lake in the Kenai watershed, and a plan for setnetters to form a cooperative with shares in the profits of the trap in return for shutting down the sockeye net fishery most responsible for snagging kings.

The set gillnetters wouldn’t buy it then, and they almost certainly wouldn’t buy it now.

So maybe the time has come for the state of Alaska to adopt the plan. The Alaska Department of Fish and Game is always strapped for cash. Why not a state-owned trap to remove surplus sockeye from the Kenai in years like this?

Half the money could be dedicated to state fisheries management and half could be earmarked for the Alaska Permanent Fund, which would mark the first contribution of Alaska fisheries to the one program that most benefits all Alaskans.

The state could manage the commercial fisheries in the Inlet largely as has been done for decades, but use the trap to fine-tune escapements of Chinook, sockeye and coho salmon into the upper river.

It would be the perfect technological solution.

Unfortunately in the Luddite Land of the North, this idea likely has less chance of being granted any consideration than Colt’s idea got more than 20 years ago.







7 replies »


    GMO farm salmon a drug or food?

    A drug with gills? U.S. agency reshapes debate on biotech fish
    Jessica Leeder Global Food Reporter

    After a 10-year struggle over how to handle the fish, which was designed in a laboratory on Canada’s Prince Edward Island to grow twice as fast as its wild counterparts, the United States Food and Drug Administration decided to regulate the salmon using rules for veterinary drugs – as opposed to new food products.

    • Marlin: The whole GMO debate strikes me as interesting at a time when we’re expecting everyone to inject a vaccine carried by a microplastic into their bodies. It’s especially interesting when it comes to the Frankenfish, which is in many ways just a more sophisticated version of a classic Mendelian hybrid: fish A + fish B = fish AB.

      I sometimes wonder if the reaction to Aquabounties fish would have been different if it looked more like the ocean pout ancestors than the Atlantic salmon ancestor. At least some of the opposition here appears to be over the packaging.

  2. Over the years, whenever I mentioned returning to fish traps, even sports fishermen would get upset. Most hadn’t lived here long enough to understand how fish traps work.. After explaining the predicament of all the upper Cook Inlet salmon streams and the inability of net fishermen to avoid catching endangered salmon, traps became more palatable.

    Perhaps purchasing and retiring permits could be included in the transition to fish traps……

    Distribution of fish or fish income will be a cliff to climb, however if the Rangers could do it under intense fire at Normandy, it’s doable………

  3. Give 3 handy “can do” Alaskans a reasonable budget, some equipment and 20 or so containers. Turn them loose with the concept of a mobile, modular trap and processing facility. You would have just that in 6 months. The trap, processing line, and refrigeration. With the Kenai Kings close to threatened and/or endangered status this has to happen. Do any of you Kenai settnetters reading here think anything is going to change? The demographics are against you. You are outvoted. Change quickly or you are gone. Thinking about this idea you have to be struck by the myriad of financial opportunities it presents, first for financing and second for marketing. Wow!

  4. Regardless of century or country, fishing has always been and will always be political. Alaska’s management of fisheries has pros and cons. The shrinking numbers and size of kings warrants measures to reverse the trend unless we want our State Fish to be rare at best.

  5. A couple years ago, I directly observed the head of a seal (harbor seal?) bobbing amongst the waters of Skilak Lake. The event still baffles me, but I can only imagine how a creature like that might move through a Lower Kenai fish trap.

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